Religion in Cuba

                                   Author: Miguel A. Valdivia
                                   Publishing date: 08/29/2002 11:01 pm
                                   Liberty Magazine
                                   La Nueva Cuba
                                   Enero 4, 2003

                                   The shift toward the present state of increased religious freedom in Cuba seems to
                                   have occurred sometime in the early 1980s. In 1985 Frei Betto, a Brazilian Jesuit
                                   priest, published a book entitled Fidel and Religion—a summary of 23 hours of
                                   conversation with the country’s leader. That book projected a keen apology of
                                   Cuban government views. In it Castro offered personal insights on the subject of

                                   About Christ, Castro stated, “I never perceived a contradiction in the political
                                   revolutionary field between the ideas I maintained and the idea of that symbol, that
                                   extraordinary figure who had been so familiar to me since I began to reason.” 1

                                   On the subject of prayer in the Catholic Church he recalled: “I have seen, for
                                   instance, in some religions, the habit of praying as if talking with another,
                                   spontaneously, with one’s own words, to express a feeling. That was never taught
                                   to us [from his childhood Castro attended Catholic schools], but to repeat what
                                   was written, once, ten times, one hundred times, absolutely mechanically. That
                                   really isn’t a prayer; it’s an exercise of the vocal cords.” 2 About hell Castro said: “I
                                   remember long sermons on hell, about its heat, its sufferings, its anxiety. I really
                                   don’t know how such a cruel hell could be invented....One cannot conceive of a
                                   place that would deal so harshly with a person, no matter how great his sins might
                                   have been.” 3

                                   About that time Castro expressed his attitude toward the church in several
                                   conciliatory meetings with Catholic bishops and Protestant leaders. In September
                                   of 1985 he appealed to his party activists to respect the rights of believers and
                                   promised to start working to help solve the “material needs” of the church. José
                                   Felipe Carneado, then chief of religious affairs within the Cuban Communist Party,
                                   stated during an interview in January 1986 that the party no longer considered the
                                   teaching of atheism as a key element in their ideological work.

                                   Some see the government’s attempts at reconciliation with the churches as
                                   strategic steps taken to win the support of Liberation Theology militants and to
                                   build the party’s image in the eyes of international opinion. Whatever the motives,
                                   changes since 1985 have brought wonderful benefits to Cuban believers.

                                   During the first years of the revolution, religious repression in Cuba included the
                                   closing down of the main Catholic magazine La Quincena, the occupation and
                                   confiscation of Catholic and Protestant schools, and the jailing and deportation of
                                   several priests. By 1961 hundreds of priests and bishops had been detained and
                                   some churches profaned. These confrontations reduced the number of priests and
                                   other Catholic religious workers to a fourth of their 1960 total.4 Other religions
                                   suffered equally significant losses. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959,
                                   there were some 15,000 Jews in Cuba. Today there are only an estimated 1,500
                                   Jews throughout the island. 5

                                   Seventh-day Adventist pastor Noble Alexander recalls the day of February 20,
                                   1962, when he was detained while driving home after preaching a sermon in
                                   Matanza, Cuba. Authorities pulled him over and told him he was wanted for five
                                   minutes of questioning. Those five minutes turned into 22 years in a Cuban prison.
                                   A year after his arrest he faced a mock trial on charges of trying to kill Cuban
                                   president Fidel Castro. A lawyer he had never seen pleaded guilty on his behalf.
                                   Pastor Alexander was one of 26 political prisoners Fidel Castro released after a
                                   visit by Jesse Jackson in June 1984. Also released was Thomas White, a Los
                                   Angeles school teacher who spent several months in prison. He had been
                                   condemned for dropping evangelistic leaflets over Cuba from a plane.6

                                   The harassment of religion in Cuba has included the sending of workers of various
                                   denominations to forced labor camps. In these they have suffered physical and
                                   verbal abuse. Another type of abuse was called the “street plan.” It consisted of
                                   conducting activities next to church buildings in order to interrupt the religious
                                   services. Juan Clark, a Cuban-American journalist, interviewed a Catholic
                                   parishioner who told of Communist Party youth running screaming into a church
                                   and throwing eggs, one of which hit the priest.7

                                   The Protestant churches experienced similar attacks. Baptists were pelted with
                                   stones inside their church. Religious youth in Cuba have suffered for their faith over
                                   the years because atheism was deemed the backbone of Cuban education.
                                   Excellent students have been denied the opportunity of enrolling in the best
                                   schools because of their religious convictions. Textbooks deny the historicity of
                                   Christ and criticize the biblical account of creation.

                                   Only during the past few years have the churches been allowed to conduct direct
                                   evangelism. Before, they would disguise their outreach as cultural or musical
                                   programs. Christians would commit Bible passages to memory so they wouldn’t be
                                   seen carrying a Bible to other homes. Today churchgoers may invite friends and
                                   neighbors to undisguised evangelistic meetings. Although Bibles are not readily
                                   available in stores, church organizations can purchase them in bulk from
                                   state-approved venues.

                                   By 1985 less than 1 percent of the total population of 8.5 million were attending the
                                   Catholic Church. Even so, with only 192 priests Cuba had the lowest clergy to
                                   potential parishioner ratio in Latin America.8 And while Protestant churches have
                                   been growing, their growth has trailed that in other countries. Recent growth,
                                   however, has been astounding. Seventh-day Adventists, for example, baptized
                                   more than 2,000 in just one day in February of 1999. Jehovah’s Witnesses have
                                   also experienced considerable growth (now approximately 80,000 members).

                                   The year 1999 was good for religious freedom on the island. Pope John Paul II’s
                                   visit to Cuba from January 21 to 25 made several historic firsts. He celebrated
                                   public Masses attended by hundreds of thousands in Havana, Camagüey, Villa
                                   Clara, and Santiago de Cuba. In his 11 discourses the pope emphasized the need
                                   for fundamental human freedoms.

                                   On December 1, 1999, the government declared that henceforth citizens would be
                                   allowed to celebrate Christmas as an official holiday and permitted the Catholic
                                   cardinal to speak briefly on national media on the celebration. However a report
                                   from the U.S. Department of State confirms that Nativity scenes in public areas are
                                   still prohibited.9

                                   The government requires churches and other religious groups to register with the
                                   provincial Registry of Associations to obtain official recognition. Until recently,
                                   when some concessions have been made, the construction of new church
                                   buildings has been outlawed. This has forced the growing congregations to meet in
                                   private homes. Although house churches have occasionally been singled out for
                                   harassment by government representatives, the use of private homes for religious
                                   worship has provided an exceptional opportunity for Cubans to follow their religious
                                   orientation. Thousands of house churches are providing places of worship in many
                                   communities in which building of new churches is not allowed and in which the
                                   means of transportation are limited at best.

                                   There have been advances in religious liberty for Cubans, but even today there is an
                                   ever-present danger. In 1985 Fidel compared the church to the revolution, saying: “If
                                   you [Christians] appreciate the spirit of self-denial and other human values, those
                                   are the values we exalt.... If the church were to create a state according to those
                                   principles, it would organize one such as ours.”10 So believers are pressured to
                                   compromise in favor of a state that pretends to replace it ideologically. This threat
                                   in some ways is more dangerous than open persecution. In Cuba church and state
                                   make strange bedfellows.

                                   Footnotes 1 Fidel Castro and Frei Betto, Fidel y la Religión (Santo Domingo:
                                   Editora Alfa y Omega, 1985), p. 322.
                                   2 Ibid., p. 149.
                                   3 Ibid., p. 150.
                                   4 Juan Clark, Religious Repression in Cuba (Miami: University of Miami, 1985), p.
                                   6 See Noble Alexander, I Will Die Free (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
                                   7 Clark, p. 27.
                                   8 Ibid., p. 89.
                                   9 “U.S. Department of State, Cuba: Religious Freedom Summary,” Annual Report
                                   on International Religious Freedom, 1999.
                                   10 Castro and Betto, p. 263.