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Cuban-American Pilgrims Come Home

January 25, 1998

HAVANA (AP) _ He fled this communist-ruled island in 1980, weary of repression. But on Saturday, the Rev. Ramon Hernandez, who led exile pilgrims here from Florida, baptized the cousin of the Communist Party’s chief of religious affairs.

It was an extraordinary homecoming of sorts for Hernandez, a Tampa, Fla., resident who also baptized two children of a Cuban cousin in the same ceremony at a suburban Havana church.

Hernandez entered the seminary in 1966, as Cuba’s communist government cemented its hold on the island and discouraged people from becoming priests or going to church. He left 14 years later with about 150,000 other Cubans during the Mariel boatlift.

Hernandez, who led about 70 Cuban-American pilgrims from Tampa to Cuba for the visit of Pope John Paul II, beamed throughout the service Saturday.

``My cousin and I were raised together, but we’ve been apart for 18 years,″ he said. ``In that time, she married and had kids that I never saw. This isn’t only a reunion of family, but a reunion of faith.″

Wearing pigtails and a frilly pink-striped jumpsuit, 2-year-old Kiriam Gonzalez Diego _ the cousin of party religious affairs chief Caridad Diego _ was the first to be baptized.

Panic struck the child when her godfather, Jose Diego, of Puerto Rico, carried her to a large bowl of holy water. Kiriam screamed for her mother as Hernandez poured the water over her head and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.

Just before his turn came, a nervous Joel Suarez, 10, said, ``In the book of catechism it says anybody can be a Christian, but once you are baptized you are committed.″

Joel said that while he’s always believed in God, he never had an interest in religion _ until now. He and his brother, Joan Cesar, 14, began preparing for the baptism about a year ago, as government restrictions on worship eased. They waited for their mother’s cousin to return to Cuba.

A blank stare occupied the boys’ faces when Hernandez explained the significance of baptism and their new commitment to the Catholic church.

Then Joel, almost wincing as he bent over, stared into the bowl, and holy water was poured on his head. He quickly smiled when Hernandez kissed him on the back of the head and whispered something to him.

Joan Cesar quickly walked up to the bowl when his turn came, a serious expression on his face.

``I’ve never been so nervous,″ said Joel, who wore a pendant depicting the Virgin Mary on a leather strap around his neck. It was a gift from one of the pilgrims.

His brother shyly begged off questions from reporters.

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