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Cuba’s Sick Await Pope’s Arrival

January 19, 1998

EL RINCON, Cuba (AP) _ Jesus Mejia Lara said words cannot capture how he feels about the visitor who’ll call on him this week. Instead, the AIDS patient proudly holds up the gift he’ll present Pope John Paul II.

An ebony crucifix Mejia wears around his neck was given to him by his mother. He intends to give the 58-year-old cross to John Paul on Friday.

``I cannot do anything else,″ Mejia said, a former athlete who joined the church after falling ill 12 years ago.

Mejia is one of 10 AIDS patients being brought to meet John Paul when he visits a center for leprosy patients in El Rincon, 18 miles south of Havana, for an encounter with ``the world of suffering.″

The center, where nuns and other staff care for some 200 patients, honors St. Lazarus, an early bishop whose image here has been fused with two other figures to become one of Cuba’s most revered religious symbols.

Lazarus, as described in a parable in Luke, begged at the gate of a rich man, his body covered with sores. Upon his death he went to heaven, while the rich man suffered in hell. The rich man called up to Lazarus for help, only to be told that he had enjoyed his pleasures on Earth.

In Afro-Cuban religion, Lazarus also is identified as the Yoruba deity Babalu Aye _ the protector of the sick who took upon himself all the illnesses of his people to save them.

The El Rincon center, for the care of leprosy victims, is run by the government and sisters from the Order of the Daughters of Charity.

Sister Maria Elena Garcia Castro has been busy overseeing work to spruce up the center’s shrine and grounds, founded in 1717, in time for the pope’s arrival. She hopes his visit will breathe new life into the church’s effort to expand its programs for the poor and attract more faithful.

``Beyond anything, it could change a lot of hearts, it could change ideologies,″ the nun said. ``It could reactivate faith which we had forgotten, which we have denied. It’s another step towards an increase in faith and hope.″

The tropical sun brightens the gardens surrounding the dormitories where many of the center’s patients live. There also are rows of one-bedroom homes for couples who found love here and married.

Patients tend small vegetable gardens, and groups of friends meet to play dominoes beneath the shade of trees.

Taking a break from clacking domino tiles onto a table, Luis Almenares Ramon said the chance to meet the pope ``is something very important, very transcendent.″

``It is a privilege to be able to see the Holy Father,″ said the man in his late 70s, seated in a wheelchair.

For Duarte Espinal, 82, who lost a foot to leprosy, the enthusiasm comes from a lifetime of faith. ``I am a Catholic from birth,″ he says proudly.

Mejia, a former member of the national rowing team, has spent 12 years in a shelter near here for those infected with AIDS a few miles away. His illness is what brought him to the church.

``In difficult times, you turn to the Lord,″ he said.

Enrique Lopez, who lost his wife to AIDS while in the hospital, said patients need to keep busy ``to avoid thinking about this terrible disease because if you do you fall into the abyss of depression.

``We need to have faith, to believe we will find a cure and to support each other spiritually.″

Another patient, Jose Luis Castaneda, is about to graduate from nursing school. ``You have to have the will to live. Being HIV positive is not the end,″ he said.

Since 1986, there have been 1,832 HIV cases diagnosed in Cuba, specialist Dr. Juan Rivero said. Of those, 677 remain alive.

The leprosarium has been painted a soft pale yellow _ the color associated with St. Lazarus _ and new sidewalks are replacing the remnants of those that crumbled in recent years, when hard times in Cuba made construction materials scarce.

``Even before the pope arrives we are receiving some of the Lord’s favors,″ said the Rev. Gabriel Torres, who has worked in the shrine for almost two years.

Every year, tens of thousands of Cubans _ some crawling on their knees _ flock to the shrine to pay homage on the feast of San Lazaro in December. Many ask the saint for cures.

``These are humble people who identify themselves with Lazaro,″ Torres said. ``Lazaro becomes the road to the church and to God. And it is a road that does not close.″

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