Last month two groups of religious leaders and Pope Francis demonstrated their commitment to U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.
World Council of Churches Group
On April 10th the World Council of Churches, the Cuban Council of Churches, the Latin American Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches USA issued a statement that began with this Biblical quotation: “God shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Micah 4:3).
This statement then expressed “thanks, appreciation, and encouragement for the ongoing negotiations of the governments of Cuba and the United States of America to normalize relations.” The statement also urged the countries “to have conversations in a spirit of mutual respect and equality that will accelerate the process of normalization” and for the U.S. “to remove Cuba from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism, and to terminate the embargo that has created so much suffering in Cuba.”
National Council of Churches USA Group
On April 27th 30 U.S. religious leaders released a public letter to Members of Congress voicing their support for ending the U.S. embargo and all remaining restrictions on U.S. travel to the island and for restoration of “full diplomatic relations, greater opportunities for religious and cultural travel, loosened restrictions on remittances and commodities, Cuba’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, more trade and new opportunities to support Cuba’s private sector.”This letter was informed by “many decades” of U.S. and Cuban churches having “worked with one another toward common goals” and by strengthening their “relationships . . . as religious freedom in Cuba has improved and church membership has grown.”
The Christian churches and groups on the letter besides the National Council of Churches USA included the American Baptist Church; American Friends Service Committee; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Church of the Brethren; Church World Service; Episcopal Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Jesuit Conference of Canada and U.S.; Maryknoll Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and Missioners; NETWORK (National Catholic Social Justice Lobby); Presbyterian Church (USA); Unitarian Universalists Association; United Church of Christ; and United Methodist Church.
The letter also was signed by the Cuba America Jewish Mission and by the Islamic Society of North America.
Pope Francis previously had planned a trip to the U.S. this September, and on April 22nd, the Vatican announced the Pope also will visit Cuba just before going to the U.S.. Given the Pope’s significant involvement in helping the two countries to embark on the path of reconciliation last December 17th, he is expected to reiterate his Holiness’ prayers for U.S.-Cuba peace and reconciliation.
Orlando Márquez, a spokesman for the Havana Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church, celebrated the announcement as “great news. It has been a special time in our country since the presidents of Cuba and the United States announced the process of re-establishing relations, and both of them thanked Pope Francis for his efforts to move the process forward. That is well known in Cuba, and the Cuban people are grateful.”
On April 27, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro had a “cordial” meeting in Havana with Cardinal Beniamino Stella, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. They discussed the upcoming visit by the Pope, and the Cardinal said he was “confident” the papal visit will help improve the relationship between Cuba and the U.S.
During the Pope’s visit to the U.S. he is expected to meet with President Obama and to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
Praise God for these religious leaders demonstration of support for this historic reconciliation!
A previous post reviewed the recent U.S. State Department report on Cuban religious freedom while another post critiqued the views on that subject from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The following are comments prompted by three recent articles in Granma, Cuba’s newspaper, about religion in Cuba that are consistent with my experiences on the island and my conclusion that Cuba enjoys significant religious freedom and does not deserve to be criticized on this subject by the U.S.
The first article collects observations on that subject from Cuban religious leaders; the second reviews the recent meeting in Cuba of the Latin American Council of Churches; and the third reports on a visit to Cuba by the President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
Religious Freedom in Cuba
The first article from May 9th asserts that “many specialists have noted the increase of religious expression in Cuban public life. The adoption into the Constitution of the secular nature of the state in 1992 facilitated religious freedoms, and two Popes and other eminent foreign religious leaders have since visited the country.” The article supported this assertion with interviews of several Cuban religious leaders.
No Anti-Semitism. At the Beth Shalom Temple in Havana’s El Vedado district, which I have visited, David Prinstein, vice president of the Jewish Community, confirmed that Cuba’s Jews were never persecuted. He said, “In the early days of the Revolution there was a distancing between different religions and the state; if you occupied a leadership position [in the state] you could not be religious, but there was no persecution.” His parents, he explained, were not “practicing Jews but my grandparents, who came to Cuba from Poland, fleeing the Nazis, always went to the synagogue.”
Currently, the Cuban Jewish Community has approximately 1,500 members. There are five synagogues in Cuba, three in Havana, one in Santiago de Cuba and another in Camagüey.”Although it is a small community in terms of numbers, it is strong in terms of what it does and the number of projects and programs in existence,” Prinstein confirms.
One challenge for Cuban Jews is adhering to dietary practices, given that they cannot eat pork, shellfish, scale-less fish, or web-footed poultry. They are assisted in respecting these regulations with allowances made for the only private butcher’s store in the country. “It was established in 1906, and was respected after the triumph of the Revolution,” notes Prinstein.
He also described relations between his community and the Cuban government as excellent. “Even before the [new] Cuban Migration and Travel Law . . ., we were always able to travel to international events to which we had been invited in Latin America, Israel and the [U.S.].”
A New church in Cuba. The Moravian Church began to function in Cuba at the end of the 1990’s. “We started out as a small group meeting together in a house, until we joined the Cuban Council of Churches in 2003 as fraternal associates,” said Armando Rusindo, one of its leaders, and in January 2013 it was registered with the government as an independent entity.
Now Rusindo believes there is “an awakening of faith among Cubans; something that can be noted by the number of people going to church.” Nevertheless, the churches need “to constantly demonstrate what religion can contribute to a nation, by our example, conduct, dedication, and service, derived from our beliefs.”
Cuban Islamic League. There have always been Muslims in Cuba, but for 500 years of history, there was no Muslim religious institution on the island, states Pedro Lazo, president of the Cuban Islamic League, which was officially established in 2007, although there were group meetings prior to that year. “We have been practicing since the 1990’s and we have never had a problem,” he affirmed.
The Islamic League enjoys good relations with all other religions. “Our statutes establish that these relations must be excellent, like those we must have with our neighbors, based on respect, fraternity and cooperation in all contexts.” Moreover, “Government authorities are in favor of people’s total and complete religious freedoms, as confirmed both in the Constitution and in its actions.”
The Martin Luther King Memorial Center. The Center, which I have visited, is a Christian-inspired ecumenical institution that was established in Havana in 1987.
Kirenia Criado Pérez, the director of the Center’s Reflection and Socio-Theological Training Program, believes that it “has helped break down a polarity that still exists in the minds of some people, that Cuban society is one thing and the Church another.” In her opinion, the Center’s social influence does not just come from Biblical, theological and pastoral training, but also from educational projects guided by the ideas of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire.
The Center also works in the area of solidarity, linked to Latin American movements, and is responsible for the Caminos publishing house. Moreover, it has been involved in building homes near the Center and elsewhere, especially after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
Criado believes that, along with other institutions, the Memorial Center has helped people understand that “the Church is another social actor and as such, is responsible for the transformation of reality.” This is especially important as Cuba is going through many changes. “Everyone is thinking about how to change the country, but not everyone wants to move in the same direction. The same thing is happening in the case of the churches. That’s why it is important to understand one another, converse and get rid of old preconceptions.”
Latin American Council of Churches
In early May Cuba hosted the General Assembly of the Latin American Council of Churches, which was founded in 1982 and which comprises 188 Protestant churches and denominations in every country of the region. Its objectives are promoting the unity of God’s people as part of the concept of mission and service to the world; stimulating member churches to unify diakonia (the call to serve the poor) and evangelization; strengthening capacity in advocacy and public, social and political participation of the churches and the Council; promoting reflection and theological dialogue; and training leadership on social issues of development and pastoral work.
The Assembly was attended by 300 religious representatives from 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Bishop Julio Murray of Panama, who was the outgoing president of the organization, said, “Even with so many difficulties due to the U.S. blockade, the churches came together in solidarity in such a strong way and said, “No, we are going to Cuba and we are going to do everything necessary to accompany our sister churches on the island,” in this concrete gesture of solidarity and ecumenicalism. According to Bishop Murray, “the task of the Church [in Latin America] is to continue strengthening as a sign of hope, particularly in the face of situations which resemble a tremendous economic bonanza, but where so many inequalities, inequities and exclusions can be seen.” Therefore, he said, we must “seek the justice that will lead to peace.”
Other participants in the meeting described its taking place in Cuba as a concrete gesture of ecumenicalism, the maxim which guided debates on the current regional situation and challenges for the future, particularly during a historic moment in Latin America.
The new president, Argentine-Ecuadoran Felipe Adolf, stated that being in Cuba was “a very concrete gesture that we wanted to make, in keeping with the maxim of the . . . Assembly: ‘Affirming an ecumenicalism of concrete action.'”
Federico Pagura, Emeritus Bishop of the Argentine Methodist Church, described the choice of Cuba for this meeting as very relevant, adding that the Assembly was a response to actions of the U.S. to prevent its happening, and blocking Cuba’s free relations with the continent and the rest of the world.
The representative of the Anglican Church of Peru, Jaime Sianez, said that by coming to Cuba he hoped to transmit “a message of hope, compassion and loyalty to our Cuban brothers and sisters.”
The Assembly concluded with the adoption of the Havana Consensus that acknowledged that Latin America and the Caribbean had many people (33%) living in poverty and(12.5%) in extreme poverty, a high maternal mortality rate, violence against women, including human trafficking, discrimination against indigenous and African-descendant people and a high number of young people.
Therefore, the Havana Consensus declared that the churches would ” continue working to promote and defend human rights and particularly sexual and reproductive rights, from a theological, pastoral and social [perspective], in the churches, ecumenical organizations and [civil society],” provide pastoral accompaniment to “communities [that] . . . suffer and are hurt by violence, intolerance and lack of justice,” encourage “the leading role of young people as leaders in our faith communities,” and “promote human rights and the eradication of all forms of discrimination, particularly against women, the elderly, the environment, indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, immigrants, lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex . . . and people with disabilities.”
Another concluding document of the Assembly was the Pastoral Letter of Havana voiced similar concerns. It also deplored the U.S. “blockade” against Cuba, the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and the U.S. detention and torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. In addition, the Letter supported the self-determination of the people of Porto Rico and expressed solidarity with the cause of the families of the “Cuban Five” still in U.S. prisons.
World Communion of Reformed Churches
In February Jerry Pillay, the President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, spent five days visiting the Cuban Presbyterian and Reformed Church.
He was impressed with that Church’s “numerous programmes [sp.] and projects to support and develop [their] communities.” In particular he praised the project “to supply purified water from taps on church premises” and the Matanzas seminary. (Many of these water projects have been installed by my fellow members of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.) “This water, Pillay said, “is made freely available to the community at large and literally hundreds of people come regularly to fetch water. Although the church is not allowed publicly to ‘evangelize,’ it is projects such as these that enable the church to impact the community with its Christian witness and message.”
Pillay observed that although “the [Cuban] government does not propagate religion, it certainly recognizes that it need the church and other religious bodies to develop the country. Thus they have come up with a number of laws and policies to improve this working relationship and to encourage the financial sustainability of religious bodies so that they are not forever reliant on foreign assistance.”
Pillay met with family members of the “Cuban Five” who are still incarcerated in U.S. prisons. The families “have not been able to visit them . . . because of being denied visas and [other permits]. . . . The pain, suffering and anguish of the families . . . have become a pastoral matter for the church in Cuba.” Therefore, Pillay said at the end of his trip he would “attempt to unite voices and place [this issue, the release of the four Cubans still in prison and ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba] on the agenda of the World Council of Churches, the World Lutheran Federation and other ecumenical organizations.”
The World Communion consists of “Reformed, Congregational, Presbyterian, Waldensian, United and Uniting churches” with 80 million members in 108 countries. They are “joined together in Christ, to promote the renewal and the unity of the church and to participate in God’s transformation of the world.” The World Communion “coordinates joint church initiatives for economic, ecological and gender justice based on the member churches’ common theology and beliefs . . . [and fosters] unity among our member churches and promote economic, social and environmental justice.”
The organization was formed in 2010 through the merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council. The World Communion and its predecessors have created the following important confessions and statements of faith:
the Belhar Confession that rejects any church doctrine that “sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and colour” (1986);
the Accra Confession that declares Christians are called by biblical teachings to be advocates of social and economic justice (2004);
Pillay, the current President of the World Communion, is due to be its General Secretary next year. He is an ordained pastor in the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa and serves as its General Secretary. He also is on the boards of the South African Council of Churches and the National Religious Leaders Forum in South Africa. He holds degrees from the University of Durban-Westville and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
The criticisms of U.S. policies by the Latin American Council of Churches and by the leader of the World Communion, in my opinion, should not be seen as the expressions of anti-U.S. organizations, but rather as expressions of wide-spread opposition in Latin America and the rest of the world to these U.S. policies. As a U.S. citizen I share these opinions.