U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom

The State Department’s recent 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, while not characterizing Cuba as a Country of Particular Interest or placing it on the Special Watch List, for the worst violators of religious freedom, nonetheless did have harsh words for the island.[1]

Cuban Religious Demography

Keep in mind that although “there is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of [Cuban] religious groups,” the report uses the following estimates of the sizes of different religious groups:

Category Denominations/Groups Number
Christian Roman Catholic (lower estimate, 6,660,0000) 7,700,000
Protestant:
Assemblies of God    150,000
Baptists    100,000
Jehovah’s’ Witnesses      96,000
Methodists      50,000
Seventh-day Adventists      35,000
Presbyterians      25,000
Anglicans      22,500
Episcopalians        6,000
Apostolic Movement        4,000
Quakers        1,000
Moravians           750
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints           150
Other        8,250
Protestant Subtotal    555,000
Christianity Subtotal 8,255,000
Jewish         1,200
Muslims         3,000
Non-religious  2,840,800
TOTAL 11,096,000

In addition, the Report said, “Many individuals, particularly those of African descent, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basisn, known collectively as Santaria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate their total membership.”

The large numbers of different religious groups and of their estimated memberships, in and of themselves, tend to show religious freedom.

U.S. Report’s Executive Summary

“The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life.  Observers said the government continued to use threats, international and domestic travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers, and restricted the rights of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom. . . . [The Communist Party’s  Office of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Justice] continued to use the law on associations to deny official registration to certain religious groups, such as a number of Apostolic churches, or failed to respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.. . . Human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported government harassment of religious leaders increased “significantly in parallel with” the churches’ outspokenness regarding the draft constitution.  According to CSW, some religious groups said the government increased its scrutiny of foreign religious workers’ visa applications and visits.  Some religious groups reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects.  According to the religious advocacy group EchoCuba and CSW, the government gave preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others.”

 U.S. Report’s Methodology

This report purportedly adheres to the Department’s ’guiding principle’ of trying “to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible” and not attempting “to verify independently all information contained in the reports.” (Emphasis added.) But each of  its various paragraphs invariably start with the allegations of violations of this freedom followed by contradictory information. This structure thereby implicitly and improperly gives greater credence to the allegations.[2]

Another legitimate criticism of this country report is its failure to consider the island’s relatively poor economic circumstances, especially with the implosion of Venezuela, which has been the island’s principal ally and financial backer, and the report’s implicitly using as its gauge of propriety the status of churches in the prosperous U.S.

The report on Cuba also fails to acknowledge that the U.S. has had and continues to have various surreptitious programs seeking to undermine the Cuban government, which, therefore, has reasonable grounds to be suspicious of some supposedly religious ventures from the U.S.

Sources of Information

Moreover, most of the adverse allegations come from only two sources: Christianity Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) with headquarters in London and EchoCuba based in Miami, Florida without setting forth any analysis of the credibility of those organizations.

CSW’s website says its “vision is a world free from religious persecution, where everyone can practice a religion or belief of their choice” and that it has a “team of specialist advocates [who] work on over 20 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, to ensure that the right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld and protected.” https://www.csw.org.uk/about.htm Another page of the website describes various religious events on the island.

CSW was started in 1977 by Merwyn Thomas, who might have been a Roman Catholic priest and math teacher at Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, Indiana.[3]

EchoCuba, which was founded in 1994 or 1995 and is based in Miami, Florida says that it is “dedicated to strengthening the Cuban church and helping coordinate mission and social efforts from the United States in Cuba. It began as an organization dedicated to supporting the growth of the independent Christian church in Cuba in 1994, by supplying them with medical and humanitarian assistance.” But very little information about the group was uncovered on its own website or through Internet research.

On the other hand, the U.S. report only made the following reference to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC): “Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches, a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.” (Exec. Summary.)

This, in this blogger’s judgment, is a major flaw in the U.S. report as the CIC was founded in 1941 and describes itself as “an ecumenical fellowship of churches and other Cuban Christian institutions, which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, in accordance with the Scriptures and seek to realize their common vocation for the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The CIC promotes spaces for encounter, celebration, reflection, formation and joint actions of the churches and other Christian institutions, for the service to our people, as a visible expression of the ecumenism to which we are called by God in Jesus Christ.” Today the CIC’s membership includes 28 denominations, 10 fraternal associations and 14 ecumenical movements and centers.[4]

Relevant here is the subsequent statement (on or about July 17, 2019) by the CIC in response to the recent announced intent to create the Evangelical Alliance of Cuban Churches by the Cuban evangelical churches that are not members of the CIC:[5]

We want to reiterate to our people and their churches that the . . . [CIC], as it affirms in its Constitution, works under its motto “United to Serve “which states:

  • “We are a fellowship of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to realize their common vocation, the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “
  • “Our mission is to provide spaces for meeting, celebration, reflection and formation of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions, as a visible expression of the unity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ, in the service of our people.”
  • “Encouraging the study, consultation and different areas of service in accordance with its purposes and functions; the cooperation of Christians in order to strengthen fraternal relations; enrich Christian life and witness; develop a sense of social responsibility and encourage participation in tasks of common interest for the evangelizing mission of the Church. “
  • “The Council, without authority over its members to determine issues of doctrine, government or worship, could be a mediating instance, provided that peace and goodness of the Body of Christ is sought, based on the best testimony to the world: the unity of the believers. “

“Therefore, it is not for the [CIC], to rule on doctrinal issues that have been put on the public stage, nor to represent on this or any other issue, before the Cuban people and its authorities, the churches and organizations , members or not.”

“In Cuba all denominations enjoy religious freedom and are equal before the law, therefore each church or religious organization establishes the relations it deems with the authorities, and gives testimony before them and the Cuban people as understood from their understanding of the Faith.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Council of Churches, in adherence to the values ​​that its Constitution proclaims and in its vocation of service, has carried out mediating efforts since its foundation. And it has done so by sovereign decision of its members, from its governing bodies, without supplanting it, any rights of others.”

“On the contrary, in most cases, these efforts have benefited not only the churches and member organizations of the CIC, and in some, all the religious denominations and their practitioners on the island. Suffice it to mention the import and distribution of Bibles, and in the early 90s, their decisive contribution in the cessation of all forms of religious discrimination in Cuba.”

“God calls for unity in Christ our Lord, to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Since its foundation 78 years ago, the . . . [CIC] has shown its fidelity to this call. Our fidelity is only to Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no other Lord, neither here in our beloved Homeland, nor outside it, to which we MUST serve and adore.”

“The . . . [CIC] reaffirms its commitment to continue working for the unity of the churches. Serving the people and the nation, seeking together and together the paths of peace, faith and hope, the dignity of the people and the care of Creation, that help us to build and live the signs of the Kingdom of God: equality and love for all and all in the midst of our beloved country.”

Conclusion

For approximately the last 17 years, my Minneapolis church—Westminster Presbyterian Church—has had a partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Matanzas, Cuba on the north shore of the island east of Havana, and I have been on three mission trips to Cuba to visit this and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches on the island. In Havana I have visited Ebenezer Baptist Church and its Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and the offices of the CIC as well as the Seminario Evangélico de Teologia in Matanzas. As a result, I have gotten to know pastors and members of these churches and other religious institutions and have had the honor and pleasure to welcome some of them to my church in Minneapolis. On one of my trips, the Westminster group delivered a CD-ROM edition of the Talmud from our friends at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel to a scholar at the main synagogue in Havana, and on another trip we delivered an icon from Minneapolis’ St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church to the new Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Havana. I also have read about religion in Cuba and many of the essays by a Presbyterian-Reformed pastor, Rev. Sergio Arce, as reflected in my blog posts on the subject.

Therefore, I can testify from personal knowledge that despite limited financial and other resources, there is significant religious freedom on the island. In other words, the State Department’s recent report on religious freedom in Cuba paints an erroneous picture.[6]

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[1] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cuba (June 21, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (“Overview and Acknowledgements”) (June 21, 2019).

[3] Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Wikipedia.

[4] World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches; Cuban Council of Churches (Consejo de Iglesias), About us.

[5] Council of Churches of Cuba, United To Serve (July 2019); The official Council of Churches declares its attachment to the new Constitution and defends that there is ‘religious freedom’ in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (July 17, 2019).

[6] See the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: The Cuban Revolution and Religion (Dec. 30, 2011); U.S. Government’s Opinions on Religious Freedom in Cuba (Jan. 5, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the U.S. Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba (Jan. 8, 2012); Cuban Protestant Leader: Cuban Religious Freedom (Apr. 4, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom (Aug. 3, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. State Department’s Report) (May 25, 2013); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) (May 27, 2013); Other Voices on Cuban Religious Freedom (June 19, 2013);  U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Cuban Human Rights (Mar. 7, 2014); Other Details about Congressional Briefing by Cuban Religious Leaders Mar. 7, 2014); Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Takes Actions Regarding Cuba (June 26, 2014); Cuban Government Meets with Religious Leaders (Nov. 19, 2014); Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014); The First Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 21, 2015); The Second Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 22, 2015); The Third Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 25, 2015); The Fourth Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 26, 2015); A Protestant Christian’s Reaction to Pope Francis’ Missions to the Cuban and American People (Oct. 26, 2015); U.S. State Department Statement on Cuban Religious Freedom (July 28, 2016); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (May 28, 2018); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. State Department (May 29, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

Issues of Cuban Human Rights To Be Discussed by Cuba and United States (Part III)    

On March 26 Cuba announced that the U.S. and Cuba will commence negotiations regarding human rights on March 31 in Washington, D.C.; this was covered in a prior post.

Other earlier posts covered the recent speech on this subject by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla and the U.N. Human Rights Council’s most recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Cuba. Now we look at the latest U.S. State Department report on Cuban human rights (the one issued in 2014 for 2013).

Preliminarily it must be noted that this U.S. report is rather stale and it is surprising that a similar report for 2014 has not yet been released. The report for 2013 was released on February 27, 2014, and the overall report was discussed in a March 4, 2014 post and its chapter on Cuba in another March 2014 post.

In addition, a post on March 10, 2014, reviewed the implications of that report for U.S. policy regarding Cuba. This blogger saw the report’s indicating Cuba’s glass of human rights was at least half full. Or as Rev. Raúl Suárez, a Baptist pastor and head of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Havana, more eloquently put it in his February 2014 briefing for the U.S. Congress: “Cuba has many problems but Cuba isn’t hell . . . . We have many good things that have been achieved [but] . . . Cuba is not the Kingdom of God.” Suárez added, “God . . . wants us [Cubans and Americans] to live like brothers and sisters.” As a result, this blogger urged reconciliation of the two countries and mentioned many of the actions to that end that started on December 17, 2014.

In any event, here is another summary of the U.S. report on Cuba for 2013. It contains many criticisms of Cuban human rights, but it also has positive comments.

Negative comments.

“Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Raul Castro, who is president of the council of state and council of ministers, Communist Party (CP) first secretary, and commander in chief of security forces. The constitution recognizes the CP as the only legal party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” A CP candidacy commission preapproved all candidates for the February uncontested National Assembly elections, which were neither free nor fair. The national leadership that included members of the military maintained effective control over the security forces, which committed human rights abuses against civil rights activists and other citizens alike.”

“The principal human rights abuses were abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.”

“The following additional abuses continued: harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrest, selective prosecution, and denial of fair trial. Authorities interfered with privacy, engaging in pervasive monitoring of private communications. The government did not respect freedom of speech and press, severely restricted internet access and maintained a monopoly on media outlets, circumscribed academic freedom, and maintained significant restrictions on the ability of religious groups to meet and worship. The government refused to recognize independent human rights groups or permit them to function legally. In addition, the government continued to prevent workers from forming independent unions and otherwise exercising their labor rights.”

“Most human rights abuses were official acts committed at the direction of the government. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.”

“There were credible reports that members of the security forces intimidated and sometimes physically assaulted human rights and prodemocracy advocates, dissidents, and other detainees and prisoners both during detention and while imprisoned, and they did so with impunity. Some detainees and prisoners endured physical abuse, sometimes by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards, or long periods in isolation cells.”

“Arbitrary arrest and short-term detention continued to be a common method for the government to control independent public expression and political activity. Under the criminal procedure code, police have wide discretion to stop and question citizens, request their identification, and carry out arrests and searches. The law provides that police officials provide suspects with a signed ‘act of detention,’ noting the basis, date, and location of any detention in a police facility, and a registry of personal items seized during a police search. Police officials routinely conducted extrajudicial detentions, however, often accompanied by beatings. Arbitrary stops and searches were most common in urban areas and at government-controlled checkpoints located at the entrances to provinces and municipalities. Searches and seizures of property by police officials without providing any record or legal justification were also common practice.”

“Police and security officials continued to use short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity or free assembly. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days. An independent domestic monitoring group, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation (CCDHRN), counted 4,540 short-term detentions through October, compared with 6,602 in 2012. Long-term imprisonment of peaceful opponents, while rare, did not cease entirely. During the year authorities charged, tried, and sentenced several members of the Santiago-based opposition group Union Patriotica de Cuba (UNPACU) to prison for months or years as punishment for their political activity.”

“In addition, the law allows up to a four-year detention of individuals before they commit an actual crime, with a subjective determination of ‘potential dangerousness,’ defined as the ‘special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms.’ Mostly used as a tool to control “antisocial” behaviors such as substance abuse or prostitution, authorities also used it to silence peaceful political opponents. Authorities convicted Ivan Fernandez Depestre of dangerousness and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment for participating in a peaceful public demonstration. While there was no definitive estimate of the number of persons serving sentences for ‘potential dangerousness,’ the CCDHRN estimated that more than 3,000 citizens were held on the charge.”

“The Ministry of Interior exercises control over police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police is the country’s primary law enforcement organization and was moderately effective in investigating common crimes. Specialized units of the ministry’s state security branch are responsible for monitoring, infiltrating, and suppressing independent political activity. The police support state security agents by carrying out house searches, arresting persons of interest to the ministry, and providing interrogation facilities.”

“Members of the security forces acted with impunity in committing numerous, serious civil rights and human rights abuses.”

“Many state-orchestrated ‘acts of repudiation’ directed against the domestic opposition group Damas de Blanco (‘Ladies in White‘) were organized to prevent them from meeting or marching peacefully. On July 14, state security agents and affiliated groups assaulted members of the group when they left a church in Matanzas after celebrating Catholic mass, fracturing the wrist of Sonia Alvarez Campillo and breaking the ribs of her husband, Felix Navarro Rodriguez.”

Positive Comments.

The U.S. conceded that the Cuban constitution “prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability or social status” and that Cuban law prohibits “ abusive treatment of detainees and prisoners,” “rape, including spousal rape” (and enforces that law); and “threats and violence, including those associated with domestic violence.” Cuban law, says the U.S., also “provides penalties for sexual harassment;” accords “men and women equal rights and responsibilities regarding marriage, divorce, raising children, maintaining the home and pursuing a career;” provides “equal pay for equal work;” grants “persons with disabilities the right to equal employment opportunities and equal pay for equal work;” and prohibits “unlawful imprisonment, coercion, and extortion” although it “does not appear explicitly to prohibit forced labor.”

The U.S. report further states in 2013 that the government had centers “providing family counseling service” and “treatment for child sexual abuse victims;” that the government “actively promoted racial integration and inclusiveness;” that the government or its agents had not committed any reported arbitrary or unlawful killings or politically motivated disappearances; that there were no reported anti-Semitic acts; that there was “no societal pattern of child abuse,” no known “patterns of abuse of [children with disabilities] in educational or mental health facilities” and no discrimination officially reported or permitted based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care.”

Conclusion

It is fair to conclude that many of what the U.S. saw as negative aspects of Cuban human rights in 2013 will be raised in its forthcoming talks on the subject with Cuba.

The U.S. should approach this subject with humility and remember the U.S. immense superiority in economies and military might and the long-standing U.S. actions of hostility towards Cuba, including the following:

  • the U.S. usurpation of Cuba’s war for independence from Spain in the late 19th Century (what we in the U.S. call the “Spanish-American War“);
  • the U.S.’ making Cuba a de facto protectorate in the early 20th Century;
  • the U.S. support for the invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961;
  • the U.S. threats of military action against Cuba during the pressured Cuban missile crisis of 1962;
  • the CIA’s hatching several plots to assassinate Fidel Castro when he was Cuba’s President;
  • the U.S. conduct of an embargo of Cuba over the last 50-plus years;
  • the U.S. Government’s Commission on Assistance for a Free Cuba setting forth what amounted to a U.S. blueprint for taking over Cuba; and
  • the more recent U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) covert or “discreet” programs to promote dissent, if not regime change, on the island.

This history and the vastly superior U.S. economic and military power provide Cuba with many legitimate reasons to be afraid of the U.S. It, therefore, is understandable why Cuba has harshly treated what we call “dissidents” and what Cuba fears are or could be supporters of a U.S. takeover. And we in the U.S. should know from our own history since 9/11 that societies and governments tend to clamp down on civil liberties when they fear outside interference or attacks.

 

 

Cuban Government Meets with Religious Leaders

Díaz-Canel Bermúdez
Díaz-Canel Bermúdez

Granma, Cuba’s state-owned newspaper, and the Cuban News Agency have reported that Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the First Vice President of the Cuban Councils of State and Ministers and a member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee (Political Bureau),[1] recently met with Cuban evangelical and protestant leaders from the Cuban Council of Churches. [2] The meeting’s purpose was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first meeting between Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro and leaders of the Council and to discuss current challenges facing the organization.

After the first meeting in 1984, considered to be milestone in relations between the church and State, a practice developed of holding periodic meetings between all religions and the leadership of the country to promote work and dialogue.

The Recent Meeting

Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico
Rev. Joel               Ortega Dopico

Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico, the President of the Cuban Council of Churches and a pastor of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba, highlighted the importance of sustaining the churches’ relations with the government and of the role the Council has played, at crucial moments, for the Revolution, such as the Council’s “staunch opposition to the U.S. blockade against the Cuban economy, fighting for the return of Elián [Gonzalez to Cuba from the U.S.] and the release of our five anti-terrorist brothers from the unjust incarceration they have been subjected to in the U.S.”

Rev. Raúl Suárez
Rev. Raúl Suárez

 

Rev. Raúl Suárez, the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, recalled Fidel’s comments at the first of these meetings in 1984 about the need for mutual understanding between Cuban religious organizations and State institutions and Cuban society.

Rev. Pablo Odén Marichal
Rev. Pablo Odén Marichal

Rev. Pablo Odén Ma­ri­chal, Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches and Vice-President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba, stated that “protestant churches have been a means of cultural penetration in Cuban society” and given this reality he urged for “a greater strengthening of the ethical and behavioral work of the faith toward the community of believers and society, based on human and patriotic values.”

Marichal emphasized greater participation of the inter-faith movement and churches in the search for solutions to problems facing Cuban society, such as an aging population. He stated, “We must revive Fidel’s idea of a strategic alliance between revolutionary Christians and Marxists, for which permanent dialogue is necessary.”

Díaz-Canel, the government Minister, commented on the importance of transmitting this historic occasion to the current generation in order to strengthen dialogue and unity among Cubans. He described the meeting as an encounter of faith, friendship and memories. He said, “It is touching to remember all those moments – lack of understanding at times which was later overcome through respectful dialogue.”

He also expressed the desire to address concerns about Cuba’s social and economic order, as well as challenges being faced in the struggle to strengthen and promote social values “in order to prevent the establishment of a base of neocolonial and neoliberal capitalist reconstruction. This is the struggle we must assume, strip away all the pseudo culture, all the banality and selfishness and individualism,” he concluded.

The First Meeting in 1984

Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Havana
Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Havana

In 2007 I heard directly from Rev. Raúl Suárez  about the circumstances surrounding the first meeting between Cuba’s Revolutionary government and the Cuban churches. This happened when I was with a group of Westminster Presbyterian Church members from Minneapolis that visited Havana’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, which is affiliated with the adjacent Baptist Church, where Rev. Suárez was the pastor.

Suárez told us that in 1984 he learned that Jesse Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President that year, was coming to Cuba. Jackson said that Fidel Castro had invited him to discuss the status of 22 U.S. citizens then being held by the Cuban Government. Jackson said that he also wanted an invitation from a Cuban church so that he could participate in a religious service in Cuba. Jackson asked Suárez, then Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches and Director of International Relations of the Cuban Baptist Church, if that would be possible. Jackson also gave Suárez a letter to provide to Castro on this issue.

Suárez  then contacted Fidel, who responded that it would not be a problem even though atheism was the established “religion” in the Cuban constitution at the time.

Jackson made his trip to Cuba in June 1984 and gave a speech to 4,000 students at the University of Havana with Castro in attendance. Afterwards the two of them and their aides walked a few blocks to the nearby Methodist Church where Jackson would be preaching. As they neared the church, Suárez heard a Castro aide say to Fidel, “Take off your hat, you are close to a church.” Fidel took off his hat. Suárez was surprised by this comment and Fidel’s response. Suárez told Fidel that the people in the Plaza de Revolution (supporters of the Revolution) and the people in the church were one and welcomed Fidel to the church. Fidel said, do not ask me to preach.

There were 700 to 800 people in the church that day, including 35 church leaders and the Roman Catholic Archbishop (in 2007, a Cardinal). When Castro entered the church, the choir extemporaneously cried, “Fidel, Fidel, Fidel.” Castro did make a short speech from the pulpit with a cross behind him. (Another Cuban pastor who was present told me that Castro obviously felt uncomfortable with the Bible on the lectern and awkwardly put his hands behind his back.) Castro praised Dr. King and Jackson and said there was a need for more exchanges between the churches and the government.

Later that same day Suárez was invited to a dinner with Fidel and Jackson. This was the first time he had ever shaken Fidel’s hand, and Fidel asked him to come to the airport the next day to say goodbye to Jackson.

Soon thereafter Suárez asked for a meeting of religious leaders with Fidel and submitted to Fidel a document of concern about the official policy of atheism’s limiting the space for religion.

This resulted in a four-hour meeting between Fidel and about 14 Protestant leaders and the College of the Roman Catholic Bishops. Fidel expressed surprise at the Protestants, saying that when he was a boy in Jesuit schools, Roman Catholics disparaged Protestants. At the end of the meeting Castro made a covenant with these leaders: the churches will made an effort to understand “us” while Fidel and the Cuban Communist Party will make an effort to understand the churches. This agreement, said Fidel, should be easier for the churches than for the Party.

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[1] Díaz-Canel often is seen as a potential successor to Raúl Castro as President of Cuba.

[2] The Council was founded in 1941 as “a fellowship of churches, ecumenical groups, and other ecumenical organizations which confess Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to respond to their common calling, to the glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It gives “unity to the Christian Churches of Cuba” to facilitate cooperation with other churches around the world. Its purposes include encouraging “dialogue between different movements and institutions as a means for churches to expand their ecumenical vocation of service, thus deepening their responsibilities towards society and all of God’s creation. [The Council] also promotes study, dialogue, and cooperation among Christians to increase Christian witness and enhance life in Cuba.” Its membership now includes 22 churches, 12 ecumenical groups and centers, 3 observers and 7 fraternal associates.

 

Other Voices on Cuban Religious Freedom

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.

David Prinstein
David Prinstein

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.].”

Armando Rosindo
Armando Rosindo

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.”

Pedro Lazo
Pedro Lazo

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 Perez
Kirenia Criado Perez

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

LACouncilPosterB

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
Bishop Julio Murray

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

Rev. Jerry Pillay
Rev. Jerry Pillay

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:

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.

Conclusion

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.