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).

 

 

 

 

 

Morocco Promotes Moderate Islam with the Declaration of Marrakesh

A prior post noted that as part of its tripartite counterterrorism strategy, Morocco was promoting moderate Islam that directly condemned others who said the faith justified acts of terrorism. In early 2016 this was made express at a conference entitled “Religious Minorities in Muslim Lands: Its Legal Framework and a Call to Action” that was held in Morocco’s fourth-largest city, Marrakesh. The product of the conference was the Declaration of Marrakesh. Here is an examination of this important document and of the reactions it produced.

 The Declaration of Marrakesh[1]

The conference was precipitated by the organizers’ recognizing that “several predominantly Muslim countries [in recent years] have witnessed brutal atrocities inflicted upon longstanding religious minorities. These minorities have been victims of murder, enslavement, forced exile, intimidation, starvation, and other affronts to their basic human dignity. Such heinous actions have absolutely no relation whatsoever to the noble religion of Islam, regardless of the claims of the perpetrators who have used Islam’s name to justify their actions: any such aggression is a slander against God and His Messenger of Mercy as well as a betrayal of the faith of over one billion Muslims.”

Therefore, the conference was to “focus on the following areas: (1) Grounding the discussion surrounding religious minorities in Muslim lands in Sacred Law utilizing its general principles, objectives, and adjudicative methodology; (2) exploring the historical dimensions and contexts related to the issue; and (3) examining the impact of domestic and international rights.”

The Declaration’s two-page Executive Summary (in English) states in its preamble the following:

  • “WHEREAS, conditions in various parts of the Muslim World have deteriorated dangerously due to the use of violence and armed struggle as a tool for settling conflicts and imposing one’s point of view;”
  • “WHEREAS, this situation has also weakened the authority of legitimate governments and enabled criminal groups to issue edicts attributed to Islam, but which, in fact, alarmingly distort its fundamental principles and goals in ways that have seriously harmed the population as a whole;”
  • “WHEREAS, this year marks the 1,400th anniversary of the Charter of Medina, a constitutional contract between the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, and the people of Medina, which guaranteed the religious liberty of all, regardless of faith.”

The Declaration then declared a “firm commitment to the principles articulated in the Charter of Medina, whose provisions contained a number of the principles of constitutional contractual citizenship, such as freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense, as well as principles of justice and equality before the law” and whose objectives are in harmony with “the United Nations Charter and related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

As a result the Declaration affirmed “that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries” and issued the following calls for action:

  • “Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world . . . [should] develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.”
  • “Muslim educational institutions and authorities . . . [should] conduct a courageous review of educational curricula that addresses honestly and effectively any material that instigates aggression and extremism, leads to war and chaos, and results in the destruction of our shared societies.”
  • “[P]oliticians and decision makers . . . [should] take the political and legal steps necessary to establish a constitutional contractual relationship among its citizens, and to support all formulations and initiatives that aim to fortify relations and understanding among the various religious groups in the Muslim World.”
  • “[The] educated, artistic, and creative members of our societies, as well as organizations of civil society, . . . [should] establish a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries and to raise awareness as to their rights, and to work together to ensure the success of these efforts.”
  • “[The] various religious groups bound by the same national fabric . . . [should] address their mutual state of selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land . . . [and] rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality, and restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression.”
  • “[The] representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations . . . [should] confront all forms of religious bigotry, vilification, and denigration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promote hatred and bigotry.”

 Responses to the Marrakesh Declaration[2]

A preliminary examination of responses to the Declaration revealed a huge split in opinions about its importance and validity.

In April 2016 the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 Muslim countries, endorsed the Declaration and summit urged all member states “to establish inter-governmental bodies for social peace, inclusion, intra-social tolerance, security and harmony.” The World Council of Churches, a global ecumenical organization claiming nearly 600 million constituents across 150 countries, through its General Secretary, Reverend Olav Fykse Tveit, called the Declaration “a very timely and significant text with an important message for us all.”

The U.S. Institute for Peace also welcomed the Declaration and made the following recommendations: “ensure greater visibility and awareness of the Declaration in the Muslim world; encourage the creation of, and buy-in for, a more specific roadmap for implementation; ensure that the Declaration is associated with a movement; support indigenous organizations’ efforts to use the Declaration as a tool for advocacy; support efforts by indigenous Muslim organizations and actors to use the Declaration as a tool for education; [and] non-Muslim states and organizations must play a supporting, rather than leading, role.”

A negative review, however, was provided by Sheikh Michael Mumisa, a research scholar at the University of Cambridge’s Trinity Hall and one of Britain’s top Islamic scholars. He starts by pointing out that the two-page English-language “Executive Summary” omits most of the much longer original Arabic-language source document that emphasizes the need for careful examination of the Qur’an, the hadith corpus in the original Arabic before coming to any conclusions. The Declaration’s emphasis on the Charter of Medina, in his opinion, is also flawed because it fails to recognize that it was “a purely secular document” as the “product of deliberations, consultation and consensus between the various communities of Medina, not of divine revelation.” Thus, the Charter should be the basis for concluding that “modern Muslims should be able to develop their own constitutional laws through deliberation, consultation and other democratic processes without the need to invoke divine revelation.” Instead, the Declaration takes the Charter as sacred and interpreted in accordance with “inclusivist” texts while ignoring other “problematic” and “exclusivist” texts. Mumisa also said the Declaration is the latest in a long line of Muslim declarations that have “provided PR cover to the various governments and religious establishments . . . in the worst violations of Islamic principles and fundamental human rights.”

Another negative reaction was voiced by Prof. Sami Aldeeb, a Swiss-Palestinian expert on Islamic law, who said the Declaration would be toothless unless a series of fundamental legal reforms were enacted by Muslim countries to truly end discrimination against their religious minorities.” Otherwise, he thought, it was merely “propaganda” and “a waste of time.”

Amjad Mahmood Khan, a California attorney and UCLA law professor, https://law.ucla.edu/faculty/faculty-profiles/amjad-mahmood-khan/ opined that the Declaration “fails to provide any roadmap for Muslim-majority countries to engender meaningful reforms.” In addition, he says, “life as a Christian in Morocco remains underpriced. No church is officially recognized in Morocco, the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes Christian proselytization, and a Christian woman can neither inherit her husband’s assets nor bequeath anything to her children.” Another criticism was the Declaration’s failure to include the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights’ “robust protections for religious freedom and freedom of expression” and thereby “indicates a troubling unwillingness on the part of some of the Morocco Conference attendees to jettison legislation aimed at criminalizing insults to Islam.”

A lengthier negative review was published by Andrew Harrod, author of over 150 articles online and in print concerning various political, religious, and international relations topics. He said the Charter of Medina was “little more than a tribal alliance between the early Muslim community and Medina’s various Jewish tribes. . . [regulating] blood money payments” and having provisions against religious freedom. Harrod also asserted that Christians in Morocco “face harassment and imprisonment, often called a “second baptism” and that Moroccan law prohibits a Christian wife from inheriting from a Muslim husband and bequeathing to her Muslim children.” Criticism of some of the attendees at the conference was also voiced by Harrod.

Framework Speech by His Eminence Shiekh Abdallah Bin Bayyah

The negative comments by Sheikh Michael Mumisa prompted me to examine what he says is the original source document for the Declaration: (in English) the “Framework Speech” or “Abridgement of the Rights of Religious Minorities in Muslim Majority Communities: Its Legal Framework and a Call to Action” by Shiekh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian professor of Islamic studies at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and a specialist in all four traditional Sunni schools. This speech is available in 16 pages in English in the Booklet on the conference website.[3] Below is a photograph of Shiekh Bayyah. 

 

Perhaps there is more substance in the original Arabic version, but I failed to see in the English translation the basis for Mumisa’s opinions . For example, on pages 08 and 09 Shiekh Abdallah Bin Bayyah with references to passages in the Qur’an asserts the following as “Values of Islam in Dealing with Others:” kindness; honor; cooperation, solidarity and rectification; reconciliation; human fraternity and interaction; wisdom; commonweal; being just with others; mercy; and peace.

The Shiekh also relies on the Charter of Medina, which he says “is merciful to creation, reaffirms wisdom, calls for justice; or secures the commonweal for all—not just Muslims but for every citizen there, regardless of religion, or race.” Therefore, he continues, the Charter “is the foundation for an inclusive, multicultural, multi-religious society in which all individuals enjoy the same rights and shoulder the same responsibilities, which are outlined in a just constitution.” Now, he says, these values find expression in the U.N. Charter and its amendments, including “a declaration of human rights and international treaties,” which “are considered universally adopted by all nations.” (P. 11)

The conclusion of the Shiekh’s speech says the following:

  1. “Enough of bloodshed and fighting one another for survival, as that will lead only to annihilation; instead, let us all cooperate for survival.”
  2. “The accusation that Islam oppresses minorities has no basis in sacred law or in history.”
  3. “The actions of criminal groups . . . have stolen the name of Islam; . . . their real name should be ‘the terrorist organization.’”
  4. “The Eastern Christians exist to remain, and they were born to live.”
  5. “Academics and scholars of various faiths . . . [are] developing a historical charter that may serve as a basis for contemporary conceptualizations of citizenship.”
  6. “Constitutional citizenship . . . is . . . committed to a mutuality that ensures freedom and guarantees societal peace.”
  7. “[Let] peoples of all faiths . . . establish an alliance for peace—spiritual and psychological peace, the kind that inspires us to do good in the world. [As Hans Kung, the noted Christian theologian said], ‘There can be no peace in this world without peace among the religions.’
  8. “We want to improve the conditions of peoples everywhere.”
  9. “We want to end these killings and other attrocities. . . . ‘No!’ to terror and terrorism.”

Conclusion

 Others more knowledgeable about Islam need to sort through the above criticisms of the Declaration, but I find it a remarkable and praiseworthy statement that needs to be heard in the U.S. and around the world.

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[1] The Marrakesh Declaration: The Conference Aims (Jan, 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration: About (Jan, 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration: Organizers (Jan, 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration: Executive Summary (in English) (Jan, 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration, The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Countries: Legal Framework and a Call to Action: Conference Aims (Jan. 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration: The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Countries: Legal Framework and a Call to Action (Jan. 25-27, 2016); Marrakesh Declaration, Wikipedia; Alami, Muslim Conference Calls for Protection of Religious Minorities, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 2016).

[2] OIC endorses Marrakesh Declaration, MarrakeshDeclaration.org (Apr. 15, 2016);  Hayward, Understanding and Extending the Marrakesh Declaration in Policy and Practice, U.S. Inst. Peace Special Report (Sept. 2016); Mumisa, The Problem with the Marrakesh Declaration, By Michael Mumisa (Shaykh), Muslimwise (May 9, 2016); Coakley, Cambridge scholar criticizes Marrakesh Declaration on Muslim treatment of religious minorities, AnglicanINK (May 11, 2016); Khan, The Marrakesh Declaration: Promise and Paralysis, Georgetown J. Int’l Affairs (Mar. 2, 2016); Szerman, The Marrakesh Declaration and a Critique of It, MEMRI (Feb. 23, 2016)  Harrod, Islamic Declaration Offers Slim Religious Freedom Hop, Juicy Ecumenism (Feb. 17, 2016).

[3] Bayyah, “Framework Speech” or “Abridgement of the Rights of Religious Minorities in Muslim Majority Communities: Its Legal Framework and a Call to Action”Marrakesh Declaration, Booklet (Jan. 25-27, 2016).