|2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000
The Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief, within the framework of respect for the law; however, in law and in practice, the Government places restrictions on freedom of religion.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
In general unregistered religious groups continued to experience varying degrees of official interference, harassment, and repression. Some unregistered religious groups were not only subject to official censure, but also faced pressures from registered religious groups. The Government's policy of permitting apolitical religious activity to take place in government-approved sites remained unchanged; however, citizens worshiping in officially sanctioned churches were often subject to surveillance by state security forces and the Government's efforts to maintain a strong degree of control over religion continued.
The U.S. Government has raised issues of human rights, including religious discrimination and harassment, with government officials; however, the Government has dismissed these concerns. The U.S. Government continuously urges international pressure on the Government to cease its repressive practices.
Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion
The Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief, within the framework of respect for the law; however, in law and in practice, the Government places restrictions on freedom of religion. Church and state have been constitutionally separate since the early 20th century. In 1992 the Constitution was changed and references to scientific materialism or atheism were removed. The Government does not favor any one particular religion or church.
The Government requires churches and other religious groups to register with the provincial Registry of Associations within the Ministry of the Interior to obtain official recognition. Although no new denominations were registered during the period covered by this report, the Government has tolerated some new religions on the island, like the Baha'i Faith. However, in practice, the Government refuses to register most new denominations.
Along with recognized churches, the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas, the Masons, small human rights groups, and a number of nascent fraternal or professional organizations are the only associations outside the control or influence of the State, the Communist Party, and their mass organizations. With the exception of the Masons, who have been established in the country for more than a century, the authorities continue to ignore other religious groups' applications for legal recognition, thereby subjecting members of such groups to potential charges of illegal association.
The Government's main interaction with religious denominations is through the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party. The Ministry of Interior still engages in efforts to control and monitor the country's religious institutions, including surveillance, infiltration, and harassment of religious professionals and laypersons.
In January 1998, Pope John Paul II made a historic trip to Cuba. The Pope celebrated public Masses in front of hundreds of thousands of persons in several cities, which were televised nationally. In his 11 discourses while in the country, the Pope emphasized the need to allow fundamental freedoms, to respect human rights, and to foster the development of independent civil society. Although the Government released some 300 prisoners from jails across the island, including a little over 100 political prisoners, the Pope's visit did not lead to the level of change expected in terms of increased religious freedom or political change.
There is no independent authoritative source on the size or composition of religious institutions and their membership. Although a 1953 survey showed 93 percent of the population identified themselves as Roman Catholic, today about 40 to 45 percent of the population generally are believed to identify themselves, at least nominally, with the Roman Catholic Church, according to information from the U.S.-based Puebla Institute. A significant number of citizens share or have participated in syncretistic Afro-Caribbean beliefs, such as santeria. The Baptists, represented in four different conventions, are possibly the largest Protestant denomination, followed closely by the Pentecostal churches, in particular the Assemblies of God. Twenty-five denominations recognized by the State, including Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, are members of the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC). Another 24 officially recognized denominations, including Jehovah's Witnesses and the small Jewish community, do not belong to the CCC.
Although Cuba is nominally Roman Catholic, historically it has been a largely secular society without an especially strong religious character. Catholic Church officials usually estimate that about 10 percent of baptized Catholics go to Mass regularly. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 500,000 persons. No figures on the number of Pentecostals are available, although the Seventh-Day Adventists have said that their membership numbers are around 30,000 persons. Church attendance has grown in recent years in some denominations, and has increased substantially at Catholic Church services in the wake of the Pope's visit in January 1998. Church leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, believe that church attendance peaked during 1999 and early 2000.
Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Government led to strong confrontations with institutional churches in the early 1960's. During that period, many church leaders and religious professionals left the country, fearing persecution. Over 130 Catholic religious workers, including priests, were expelled, and a few served long prison terms. In 1965 the Government forced many priests, pastors, and others "who made religion a way of life" into forced labor camps called military units to aid production (UMAPS), alongside homosexuals, vagrants, and others considered by the regime to be "social scum." The UMAP system ended in 1967. However, over the next 30 years, the Government and the Communist Party systematically discriminated against and marginalized persons who openly professed their faith by excluding them from certain jobs (e.g., teachers). Although the Government abandoned its official atheism in the early 1990's, most churches had been weakened seriously by then, and active participation in religious services had fallen drastically by that time.
In recent years, the Government has eased the harsher aspects of its repression of religious freedom. In 1991 it allowed religious adherents to join the Communist Party, which is the only legal political entity. In 1992 it amended the Constitution to prohibit religious discrimination and removed references to "scientific materialism," i.e., atheism, as the basis for the State. Nevertheless, the Government discourages members of the armed forces from attending religious services in their uniforms.
The law allows for the construction of new churches, but requires churches to apply for permits to authorize such construction. However, the Government rarely has authorized construction permits, forcing many churches to seek permits to meet in private homes. Most registered churches are granted permission to hold services in private homes.
Religious officials are allowed to visit prisoners, but prison officials sometimes refuse visits to certain political prisoners.
Just before Holy Week, April 22-29, 2000, government officials informed Catholic Church officials that no processions would be allowed. When the Church made this information public, state officials changed their position and informed Church officials that churches that previously had requested permission to hold a procession could do so.
The Government continued to enforce a regulation that prevents any Cuban or joint enterprise (except those with specific authorization) from selling computers, facsimile machines, photocopiers, or other equipment to any church at other than the official--and exorbitant--retail prices.
Education is secular and religious institutions are not allowed to operate schools. In the past, students who professed a belief in religion were stigmatized by other students and teachers and were disciplined formally for wearing crucifixes, and for bringing Bibles or other religious materials to school. In some cases these students were prohibited from attending institutions of higher learning, or from studying specific fields. Students who profess a belief in religion now commonly attend institutions of higher education, including enrollment in the Department of Psychology.
Religion is not taught in schools. Churches provide religious education classes to their members. Catholic Church officials report that during the first 6 months of 2000 there was a drop in the number of children attending catechism classes, mostly because of other scheduled activities, usually by local school authorities. There have been no reports of parents being restricted from teaching religion to their children.
Church officials have encountered cases of religious persons experiencing discrimination because of ignorance or personal prejudice by a local official. Religious persons do encounter employment problems in certain professions, like education.
In December 1998, the Government announced in a politburo declaration that henceforth citizens would be allowed to celebrate Christmas as an official holiday. (The holiday had been cancelled, ostensibly to spur the sugar harvest, in 1969, and restored in 1997 as part of the preparations for the Pope's visit.) However, despite the Government's decision to allow citizens to celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, it maintained a December 1995 decree prohibiting nativity scenes in public buildings except those related to the tourist or foreign commercial sector.
Religious groups are required to submit a request to the local ruling official of the Communist Party before being allowed to hold processions or events outside of religious buildings.
The Government has relaxed restrictions on most officially recognized religious denominations. In October 1999, the secretary general of the World Council of Churches officially visited the CCC and met with government officials. During his stay, he presided in a religious ceremony in the First Presbyterian Church in Havana. Jehovah's Witnesses, once considered "active religious enemies of the revolution," are allowed to proselytize quietly door-to-door and are not subject to overt government harassment, although there were sporadic reports of harassment by local Communist Party and government officials. The Government has authorized small assemblies of Jehovah's Witnesses, the opening of a central office in Havana, and publication of the group's magazine and other religious tracts.
Governmental Abuses of Religious Freedom
Government harassment of private houses of worship continued, with evangelical denominations reporting evictions from houses used for those purposes. According to CCC officials, most of the private houses of worship closed were unregistered, making them technically illegal.
In October 1999, the leader of the United Pentecostal Church, Santos Osmany Dominguez Borjas, was expelled from Havana by security agents and was forced to relocate to Holguin. Osmany returned to Havana a few months later. Members of the United Pentecostal Church of Cuba-Apostolic ("Iglesia Pentecostal Unidad de Cuba-Apostolica") previously had split from the "Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ" because they did not agree with their church's membership in the CCC. Due to this split the group was not registered officially as a religious group.
During 1999 and the first six months of 2000, state security officers regularly harassed human rights advocates who sought to attend religious services commemorating special feast days, such as the September 8, 1999 celebration in honor of Our Lady of Charity, or before significant national days. There were some reports that state security officers detained laypersons in order to prevent them from attending Christmas services and processions. Some persons who planned to participate in the religious procession reportedly were going to use the event to protest the continued imprisonment of political activists and other dissidents.
As in previous years, state security agents in Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Pinar del Rio visited the homes of human rights activists the night before and the morning of July 13, 1999--the fifth anniversary of the Cuban Border Guard's sinking of the "13th of March" tugboat in which 41 persons, including 21 children, died--to warn them against commemorating the incident. Marcel Valenzuela Salt, a member of Fraternal Brothers for Dignity (Hermanos Fraternales por la Dignidad"), and five other persons were arrested while driving to a church in Guanabacoa to attend a mass commemorating the incident. Police officers detained them and confiscated the truck driven by Valenzuela, even though the truck's papers clearly indicated that Valenzuela's father was the owner. The truck was returned to his father after many months. Apart from these incidents, there were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.
The Ministry of the Interior continued to monitor religious activities, and to use surveillance, infiltration, and harassment against religious groups.
There are church-run publications that are watched closely by the Government, and that are denied access to mass printing equipment. During the Pope's visit, the Catholic Church's ability to distribute even approved information pamphlets was constricted by its lack of access to printing presses. In April 2000, a leading editor of one of the Catholic Church's magazines was criticized in a major editorial of the Communist Party's newspaper as a "known counter-revolutionary."
There are currently some 295 Catholic priests, 40 deacons, and 530 nuns in the country, less than half the total prior to 1960. The Government allowed some foreign priests and nuns to enter the country, but applications of 60 priests and 130 nuns remain pending. Overall numbers of church officials are only slightly higher than before the Papal visit, since most new arrivals replaced retiring priests or those whose time of service in the country had ended. During the first 6 months of 2000, the Government did not extend the visa requests of two priests, one in Havana and another in Santiago de Cuba, and the priests were forced to leave the country.
There were no reports of government pressure against the practice of santeria and other syncretistic Afro-Caribbean religions.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report; the Pope's January 1998 visit did not lead to the level of change expected by many persons.
Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
Persons largely define themselves as Roman Catholic, although few attend mass regularly. Catholicism has remained a major cultural reference since colonial times. After 40 years of the current regime, societal attitudes, including those toward religion, are heavily conditioned by the attitude of President Fidel Castro and the ruling regime. The Government's decision to allow, and even provide some support for, the 1998 Papal visit greatly boosted the public perception that espousing religious faith was again acceptable. President Castro further cemented this view, most importantly among Communist Party adherents and government officials, in nationally televised and broadcast speeches in which he claimed that the Cuban Revolution had "never" persecuted religious believers.
There were some tensions among religions, often because some religious groups perceived others to be too close to the Government. Tension within the Pentecostal movement worsened due to the establishment of house churches, which some churches believed was fractious, and resulted in Government action against Pentecostal worshippers.
In addition, Pentecostal members of the CCC have complained about the preaching activities of unauthorized foreign missionaries that led some of their members of their churches to establish a new denomination without obtaining the required permits. In April 2000, because of these complaints by the Pentecostals, the CCC formally requested overseas member church organizations to assist them in controlling foreign missionaries and prohibiting them from establishing unauthorized Pentecostal churches.
The Cuban Council of Churches is the only ecumenical body that is recognized by the Government. It comprises many Protestant and Pentecostal denominations and engages in dialog with the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. The Council and the Government generally have a mutually supportive relationship.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
U.S. Government policy toward Cuba is to promote peaceful, democratic changes and respect for human rights, including religious freedom. The U.S. Government encourages the development of civil society, which includes the strengthening of religious institutions. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana maintains regular contact with the various religious leaders and communities in the country, and supports nongovernmental organization initiatives that aid religious groups. The U.S. Government regularly seeks to facilitate the issuance of licenses for travel by religious persons and for donated goods and materials that in some cases are provided to religious institutions. The U.S. Interests Section has raised issues of human rights, including religious discrimination and harassment, with government officials. However, the Government has dismissed these concerns. The Interests Section reports on cases of religious discrimination and harassment, and the U.S. Government continuously urges international pressure on the Government to cease its repressive practices.
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