By Jaime Hamre
HAVANA (Reuters) - The air was choked with smoke from incense and cigars while the faithful sipped sugarcane liquor from a gourd at the altar and spat mist over the crowd.
Niurka Mola 50, stood at the altar in the cramped living room of a downtown Havana walk-up, calling on the spirits of ancestors to give guidance. Later, with followers enthralled by the arrival of the spirits, one man fell into a brief fit of convulsions.
Mola is a "godmother" in Cuba's Santeria tradition, which has its roots in the Yoruba religion imported to Cuba from West Africa by slaves.
Like many Santeria practitioners, she is also a Roman Catholic who goes to church twice a month, and she is delighted that Pope Francis will visit the Caribbean island on Sept. 19-22.
But she would like the pontiff to give formal recognition to the role of Santeria in Cubans' spiritual lives.
"Catholicism is present in all manifestations of Santeria. In the end, they have the same purpose: getting closer to God," said Mola, a teacher at a daycare center in Havana.
About 60 percent of Cuba's 11 million people are baptized Catholic, the Church says, but experts say at least an equal number practice Santeria or another form of Afro-Cuban religion.
Santeria combines elements of Catholicism with the Yoruba religion and many Cubans identify with both traditions and their ceremonies.
The Church has been tolerant of Santeria but remains wary. The Vatican does not recognize Santeria as a religion and Francis has no events scheduled with practitioners.
"The Catholic Church has no role in Santeria," said Dionisio Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and president of the Cuban bishops' conference.
Though monotheistic, the Yoruba religion that bore Santeria shares no common ancestry with Christianity, experts say. Catholic priests worry that some of those who attend Mass in Cuba do not accept Jesus or recognize the Virgin Mary, which are tenets of the Catholic Church.
"Being Catholic and being a Santero is not a contradiction for them. It is for us," said Gilbert Walker, a priest from Mississippi who has been working in Cuba for 12 years. "Although the Santeria religion uses Christian symbols, they're empty of Christian content."
Walker says up to half of his churchgoers in Old Havana practice Santeria. He says he often finds decapitated pigeons, meringues, coconuts and other ceremonial offerings to Obatala, the name of one "orisha," a Yoruba sacred being that has a Catholic saint as a counterpart.
"Santeros," a term often used to refer to all believers but technically reserved for those who have completed a year-long rite of passage, choose how much of each religion to follow.
"We will continue believing in God even if the pope doesn't recognize us as Santeros," said Yuris Landis, a 27-year-old nurse, moments after his spirit-induced convulsions at the recent afternoon ceremony in Havana.
CALLS TO THE DEAD
Dozens of Santeros trickled in for the ceremony to ask the dead for health and success for a fellow practitioner, 36-year-old Lyan Hernandez, one of many white Cubans who have adopted the Afro-Cuban religion.
As they arrived, they cleansed themselves of negative energy by splashing their foreheads and arms with perfumed water that stood on a shrine of dolls and figurines, each representing one of Lyan's ancestors, and a cross to represent God's presence.
Mola recited opening prayers to summon the spirits in Spanish and the Yoruba language, ending with the Lord's Prayer.
For five hours, a four-piece band pounded out Yoruba rhythms and believers danced African and salsa steps - whatever the spirits inspired them, she said.
Then the ceremony ended as casually as it had begun, without applause or fanfare.
Home ceremonies pick up where church worship leaves off, Mola said. But while Santeria followers easily venerate both the orisha and the saint they see before them, Cuba's clergy perceive this as a confusion of the two religions.
Against the odds, Santeria devotees hope Pope Francis might change the Church's outlook, given the changes the first Latin American pontiff has introduced at the Vatican since he assumed the office in 2013.
"Francis is making a lot of positive changes for humanity, and it would be a great pleasure and point of pride for us to welcome him with a ceremony," said Jose Manuel Perez, president of the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba and a Santeria priest. "If only our invitation were accepted."
(Reporting by Jaime Hamre; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Frances Kerry)