We have just reviewed the latest international religious freedom reports from the U.S. Department of State and from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Now we look at the Department’s recent report on Cuban religious freedom. A subsequent post will examine and compare the Commission’s recent views on the subject.
This analysis is based upon my personal involvement in helping to establish and manage a partnership between my church (Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church) and Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Versalles (Versalles Presbyterian-Reformed Church) in Matanzas, Cuba; my going on three church mission trips over the last 10 years to visit that congregation; my visits to the ecumenical seminary–Seminario Evangelico de Teologia (SET)–in Matanzas and other churches and religious organizations on these mission trips; my hearing reports about other trips to our Cuban partner from fellow members of my church; my conversations with Cuban Christians at their church and when they have visited my church in Minneapolis; and my extensive reading about Cuba and specifically religious freedom on the island.
Cuban Religious Makeup
According to the report, an estimated 60 to 70 percent (or 6,600,000 to 7,700,000) of the 11 million Cuban people are believed to be Roman Catholic although only 4 to 5 percent regularly attend mass.
Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population (or 550,000): Baptists and Pentecostals are probably the largest Protestant denominations; Jehovah’s Witnesses, 94,000; Methodists, 35,000; Seventh-day Adventists, 33,000; Anglicans, 22,000; Presbyterians, 15,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 50.
The Jewish community is estimated at 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. (On one of my trips to Cuba we visited a synagogue in Havana to deliver a digital version of the Talmud as a gift from our friends at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel.)
There are approximately 6,000 to 8,000 Muslims, although only an estimated 1,000 are Cubans.
Other religious groups include the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Buddhists and Baha’is. (On another trip to Cuba we visited the beautiful Greek Orthodox Cathedral to deliver an icon as a gift from our friends at Minneapolis’ St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church.)
In addition, many Cubans consult with practitioners of religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River basin, known as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some even require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately the total membership of these syncretistic groups. (I have visited the Slave Route Museum in the city of Matanzas, Cuba that has a room devoted to Santeria and Havana’s Callejon de Hamel, an alley with Santeria murals and other things.)
Positive Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba
The State Department report had many good things to say about religious freedom in Cuba.
The Cuban “constitution protects religious freedom.” After the 1989 collapse of the U.S.S.R, the Cuban constitution was amended to eliminate “scientific materialism” (atheism) as the state ideology and to declare “the country to be a secular state” with “separation of church and state. The government does not officially favor any particular religion or church.” Moreover, says the State Department, “there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.” (The same was true in the Department’s prior report for 2011.)
The Cuban government’s respect for religious freedom improved in 2012.
There “were some advances in the ability of members of established churches to meet and worship.” In addition, religious groups reported “improved ability [in 2012] to attract new members without government interference. . . . reduced interference from the government in conducting their services, and improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events.” It also was easier for them “to bring in foreign religious workers and visitors and restore houses of worship.” (The same was true in 2011.)
Churches reported “increased participation in religious education for children.” The Catholic Church’s cultural center in Havana “continued to offer academic and business administration courses.” The “Jewish Community Center and some Protestant churches also offered courses in lay subjects, such as computers and foreign languages.” Some religious groups “operated afterschool programs, weekend retreats and workshops for primary and secondary students and higher education programs for university graduates. Although not sanctioned by the government, these programs operated without interference.” (The same was true in 2011.)
“Religious groups reported they were able to engage in community service programs. These programs included providing assistance to the elderly, after-school tutoring for children, clean water, and health clinics. International faith-based charitable operations, such as Caritas and the Salvation Army, had local offices in Havana.” (The same was true in 2011.)
Indeed, not mentioned in the report is the de facto pharmacy for the neighborhood that is operated by our partner church in Matanzas with over-the-counter medicines donated by visitors from Westminster and by the Matanzas church’s providing one free meal per week to neighborhood residents, many of whom are not members of the church.
In addition, the nearby seminary in Matanzas (SET) now has a clean-water system that was installed by Westminster members and that now provides clean water to SET and to people in the surrounding neighborhood, and SET also provides vegetables from its beautiful gardens to people in the neighborhood.
Another clean-water system was installed by Westminster members in Havana’s Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Luyano (Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church), which shares the water with people in its neighborhood. A similar water system was installed last year in another church near Havana by Westminster members.
During the year the report says “the Catholic Church and some other churches were able to print periodicals and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship.” The Catholic Church’s periodicals “sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.” As in previous years, the Catholic Church also received “permission to broadcast Christmas and Easter messages on state-run radio stations and, the Cuban “Council of Churches, the government-recognized Protestant umbrella organization, was authorized to host a monthly twenty-minute-long radio broadcast.” In addition, state-run television and radio stations mentioned a Council of Churches ceremony celebrating Reformation Sunday. (Essentially the same was true in 2011.)
The report’s referencing the Cuban Council of Churches, however, did not mention that the it was founded in 1941 (long before the Cuban Revolution), and its members now include 22 churches, 12 ecumenical movements, and seven associate organizations.
The Council, whose Havana offices I have visited, promotes unity among the Christian Churches of Cuba and helps link these churches with other churches around the world. The Council also encourages dialogue between different movements and institutions as a means for Cuban churches to expand their ecumenical vocation of service, thus deepening their responsibilities towards society and all of God’s creation. Finally the Council promotes study, dialogue, and cooperation among Christians to increase Christian witness and enhance life in Cuba.
The State Department said Cuban religious leaders reported that the government “frequently granted permission to repair or restore existing temples, allowing significant expansion of some structures and in some cases allowing essentially new buildings to be constructed on the foundations of the old. Many houses of worship were thus expanded or repaired.” (The same was true in 2011.) And in a prior year our partner church in Matanzas obtained such permission to expand its facilities for children’s Sunday School programming, and Westminster members helped build that expansion.)
Even though some religious organizations and “house churches” have not been officially recognized by the government, as required by Cuban law, in practice, said the State Department, most unregistered organizations and “house churches” operated with little or no interference from the government. (The same was true in 2011.)
Both the Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches reported “they were able to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in most provinces.” (According to the report, however, some prison authorities did not inform inmates of their right to religious assistance, delayed months before responding to such requests, and limited visits to a maximum of two or three times per year.) (The same was true in 2011.)
Although there is no official law of policy for conscientious objection to military service, since 2007 the government has unofficially allowed a period of civilian public service to substitute for military service for men who object on religious grounds. The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists stated that their members usually were permitted to participate in social service in lieu of military service. (The same was true in 2011.)
The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists stated that mistreatment and job discrimination, which had been particularly harsh in the past, were now rare and that their members were usually exempted from political activities at school. Seventh-day Adventist leaders stated that their members employed by the state usually were excused from working on Saturdays. (The same was true in 2011.)
In late March 2012 Pope Benedict XVI visited the island at the invitation of the Cuban government, which assisted in organizing papal masses in large public squares in the two largest cities. During the mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolucion before a crowd of thousands, the Pope called for “authentic freedom.” The government declared a three-day public holiday to facilitate citizen participation in these events, and videos of the visit were broadcast on state-run television stations with parallel coverage in the print media.
Negative Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba
Although to my eye the Department’s report is overwhelmingly positive, it still opens with an unnecessary negative tone. It says, “in practice, [the Cuban] government policies and practices restricted religious freedom . . . . The Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs, continued to control most aspects of religious life.”
The report also had specifics on what it saw as negative aspects of religious freedom in Cuba.
The report notes that obtaining government permission for construction of new religious buildings remained difficult.
(This may well be true, but, in my opinion, this difficulty springs from the government’s attempts to regulate the allocation of scarce resources in a relatively poor country and to allocate more resources to other purposes it deems more important. It was not an attempt to restrict religious freedom. Moreover, as noted above, the State Department recognized that it was relatively easy in 2012 for Cuban religious groups to obtain government permission to repair and remodel existing buildings.)
By law religious groups are required to apply to the Ministry of Justice for official recognition. The application procedure requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities and their source of funding, and requires the ministry to certify that the group is not ‘duplicating’ the activities of another recognized organization in which case, recognition is denied. A number of religious groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, have been waiting for years for a decision from the Ministry of Justice on their pending applications for official recognition.
(However, as previously noted, the report said that unrecognized religious groups were able to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, and send representatives abroad. In addition, I believe that the government’s official requirement that such applications indicate it is not “duplicating” another organization’s activities is due to the previously mentioned desire to conserve scarce resources.)
Once the Ministry of Justice grants official recognition, religious organizations have to request permission from the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs, to hold meetings in approved locations, to receive foreign visitors, and to travel abroad. Religious groups indicated that while many applications were approved within two to three years from the date of the application, other applications received no response or were denied. Some religious groups were only able to register a small percentage of their “house churches.”
(However, as previously noted, the report also says that the “house churches” operate without governmental interference.)
The report states that religious groups may not establish schools. This is true because the Cuban Revolution nationalized all private schools and instead emphasized public education for all children.
The report also says, “Except for two Catholic seminaries and several interfaith training centers throughout the island, religious schools were not permitted.”
This is an erroneous or misleading statement about religious education in Cuba as shown by the report’s own acknowledgement that religious organizations had increased ability to conduct their own educational programs and by the following facts not mentioned in the report:
- Since 1946 there has been an ecumenical Protestant Christian seminary in the city of Matanzas — Seminario Evangelico de Teologia (SET)–that was founded by the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal Churches. It has a full curriculum for various degrees as well as other non-degree programs, some of which are offered in other cities on the island.
- The Methodists recently withdrew from SET to start their own seminary in Havana.
- SET and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana are developing a program for education of prospective owners and operators of private businesses on the island under the government’s announcement allowing such activities. The MLK Center, by the way, was founded in 1987 to provide training and education in King’s philosophy of nonviolence for Cuban religious and community leadership.
- In the last several summers young people from Westminster have conducted a vacation Bible school at our partner church in Matanzas.
“A license from the Office of Religious Affairs is necessary to import religious literature and other religious materials.” (Yet, as previously mentioned, the report itself states there were fewer restrictions on such importation.)
The report also states that “the government owns nearly all printing equipment and supplies and tightly regulates printed materials, including religious literature.”(This, in my opinion, is an overstatement. Our partner church in Matanzas owns old-fashioned printing presses and at least one specialized computer printer, and the church prints and distributes religious bulletins and journals for most, if not all, of the Protestant churches on the island.)
The report states that most “religious leaders reported they exercised self-censorship in what they preached and discussed during services. Many feared that direct or indirect criticism of the government could result in government reprisals, such as denials of permits from the Office of Religious Affairs or other measures that could stymie the growth of their organizations.” (May be true.)
The government took “measures to limit support for outspoken religious figures that it considered a challenge to its authority.” I have no basis to challenge that statement or the specifics cited by the report on this point with respect to Pastor Omar Perez Ruiz (aka Omar Gude Perez), a leader of the Apostolic Reformation, an association of independent nondenominational churches or the Ladies in White, or the death of Oswaldo Paya Sardinas in an auto crash. (Whatever the facts are in these cases, I believe they are issues of civil liberties for Cuban dissidents, not issues of religious freedom.)
Is the glass half empty or half full? This is the question for all human activities since none of us is perfect, and it is the legitimate question about religious freedom in Cuba.
In the opinion of a Cuban Protestant leader and in my opinion, the glass of such freedom in Cuba is more than half full.
Therefore, there is no basis whatsoever for the U.S. government or her citizens to castigate Cuban religious institutions or leaders or members. As Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees when they asked him if they should stone a woman who had committed adultery, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” All of the questioners then silently departed without throwing any stones. (John 8: 3-11.)
I, therefore, am glad that this U.S. government report does not designate Cuba as a “Country of Particular Concern,” i.e., a country which has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” or the ” systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.” There is no basis for any such designation, in my opinion.