Dr. Reinerio Arce, a Presbyterian pastor and President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba, recently commented on various issues in Cuba, including religious freedom.
He advised this blogger that the recent report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom accurately described improvements in Cuban church-state relations in 2011, when it stated:
- “Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces in 2011. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba‘s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations. Additionally, there were fewer reports of illegal house churches being fined, confiscated, or evicted.”
- “Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continue to improve, although the government maintains strict oversight of, and restrictions on, church activities. Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been instrumental in negotiating the release of political prisoners and intervening to stop officials from preventing the Ladies in White from attending mass in Havana. March 2012 marks the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba‘s patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Cuba starting on March 26 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he will be received by Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue, La Mambisa, has toured the island, drawing large crowds.”
Arce emphasized the rapprochement between the Cuban government and the Roman Catholic Church that was marked by the recent visit to the island by Pope Benedict XVI. Work was suspended so Cuban people could attend the papal Mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolucion, and the government granted the Pope’s request to make Good Friday a national holiday. Before this visit, Arce noted, there was nearly a month-long pilgrimage of the statue of the Virgin of Cobre, the patron saint of charity and of Cuba, all over the island and in hospitals, prisons and other public places.
According to Arce, however, the Commission engaged in manipulating half truths and bringing together things that are not related when it talked about some Cuban religious leaders and followers having been arrested and held for short periods of time and reports by some church leaders about increased government surveillance and interference with church activities.
Even more astounding to Arce and to this blogger is the failure and refusal of the Commission to appreciate that the positive developments in Cuba outweighed any negatives and to remove Cuba from its “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC [Countries of Particular Concern] threshold, but require close monitoring.” (Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.)
Cuba is going through significant economic changes with more opportunities for Cuban private business ventures. Simultaneously, Arce pointed out,”the government has withdrawn from many of the subsidized [industries] to make room for the private businesses. Now, many people are [becoming] unemployed because [government jobs] are going to this private sector. It has been a great challenge in Cuban society–especially for the churches because many [Cubans] do not know how to rearrange their work [to be in the private sector]. Many of them are coming to the church to ask for help, which is a big challenge for all of the churches in Cuba.”
In response to this challenge, the Matanzas seminary and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center (in Havana) are planning a joint course focusing on business administration and related subjects. The seminary and the MLK Center have agreed this program will not promote small, private businesses, but instead cooperatives. Arce said, “We think it is more within the Christian understanding of economy.”
Arce gave thanks for recent changes in U.S. policies regarding travel to Cuba. Now it is easier for U.S. church groups to obtain U.S. Treasury Department licenses to go to Cuba to be with their Christian brothers and sisters. These are important “bridges between our people; [after] all these years of confrontation between our countries, the churches have maintained a strong relationship between the people.”
Another recent change in U.S. policies was commended by Arce. Many Cuban churches–Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist–were once parts of their corresponding U.S. churches, and the Cuban pastors earned U.S. pension benefits. Until recently, however, the U.S. government prevented the U.S. churches from paying the Cubans their earned pensions. Earlier this year the U.S. government ended the freeze, and the pensions will soon be paid. The Cuban pastors have been in a very difficult financial situation caused by the freeze. This blogger has personal experience with this issue because the Cuban pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s partner church in Matanzas, Cuba was one of those who could not receive his pension benefits from the U.S. church. I join Arce in shouting a big “Hallelujah”
Many U.S. and Cuban church members have been involved in people-to-people exchanges in recent years. In the process they have experienced the joy of love and solidarity. The Promised Land of more general friendship and respect and solidarity between our peoples is our goal. Praise the Lord!
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