U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

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.