Author: Miguel A. Valdivia
Publishing date: 08/29/2002 11:01 pm
La Nueva Cuba
Enero 4, 2003
The shift toward the present state of increased religious freedom in Cuba
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
By 1985 less than 1 percent of the total population of 8.5 million were
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
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
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
The government requires churches and other religious groups to register
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
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.