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Religion in Cuba

Cuba is a multiracial society with a population of mainly Spanish and African origins. The largest organized religion is the Roman Catholic Church. Afro-Cuban religions, a blend of native African religions and Roman Catholicism, are widely practiced in Cuba. Officially, Cuba has been an atheist state for most of the Castro era. In 1962, the government of Fidel Castro seized and shut down more than 400 Catholic schools, charging that they spread dangerous beliefs among the people. In 1991, however, the Communist Party lifted its prohibition against religious believers seeking membership, and a year later the constitution was amended to characterize the state as secular instead of atheist.

Although nearly 90 percent of the population was nominally Roman Catholic in pre-revolutionary Cuba, the number of practicing Roman Catholics was probably less than 10 percent. Other estimates suggest that about half of all Cubans were agnostic, that slightly more than 40 percent were Christian, and that less than 2 percent practiced Afro-Cuban religions. Membership in other religions, including Judaism, was limited.

There is no independent authoritative source on the size or composition of religious institutions and their membership. The Roman Catholic Church estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the population is Catholic but that only 4 to 5 percent regularly attend mass. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Baptists and Pentecostals are likely the largest Protestant denominations. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported approximately 94,000 members; Seventh-day Adventists and Methodists each estimated 30,000; Anglicans, 22,000; Presbyterians, 15,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 50. The Jewish community estimated 1,500 members of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, 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.

Many persons 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.

Religious groups were no exception to the government’s generalized efforts to monitor all civic activities, and the Communist Party’s Office of Religious Affairs monitored and regulated almost every aspect of religious life, including the power to approve or deny religious visits, the construction or repair of religious buildings, the ability to conduct religious services in public, and the importation of religious literature. Except for two Catholic seminaries and several interfaith training centers throughout the island, religious schools were not permitted and military service was mandatory, with no legal exception for conscientious objectors.

In response to strict restrictions on the construction of new buildings, many religious organizations used private homes, known as “house churches,” for religious services. Estimates on the total number of house churches varied significantly, from just under 2,000 to as many as 10,000. The Office of Religious Affairs allowed this but required that recognized groups seek approval for each proposed location through a separate registration process. 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.” In practice, most unregistered “house churches” operated with little or no interference from the government.

A license from the Office of Religious Affairs is necessary to import religious literature and other religious materials. The government owns nearly all printing equipment and supplies and tightly regulates printed materials, including religious literature. During the year the Catholic Church and some other churches were able to print periodicals and operate their own Web sites with little or no censorship.

In November 1996, President Fidel Castro invited Pope John Paul II to visit Cuba after an agreement was reached on some of the issues important for the church to carry out its religious activities in Cuba and prepare for the visit. During the Pope's visit, the government permitted four open-air masses, provided media coverage, and assisted with transportation of the public to the masses. In 1997 Christmas was officially recognized as a holiday for the first time since 1969, and the following year was permanently reinstated as a national holiday. While on the island, Pope John Paul II spoke of broadening the space and freedom of action of the Catholic Church and asked Fidel Castro to grant a prisoner amnesty. The Cuban Government responded by freeing at least 300 prisoners, some 70 of which were being held on political charges. The Pope's visit was seen as an important, positive event for bringing a message of hope and the need for respect of human rights. Unfortunately, these improvements did not continue once the Pope left the island. While some visas were issued for additional priests to enter Cuba around the time of the visit, this practice has once again become extremely limited.

Pope Benedict XVI concluded his first official visit to Cuba on March 27, 2012 after meeting with former President Fidel Castro and holding a mass before a multitude gathered in Havana's Revolution Plaza. During his trip, which included a stop in Mexico, the pope called on Cuba's government to reconsider Marxism and urged the people to embrace the faith of their elders. In his homily, the pontiff spoke of his joy at the recent increase in freedom given to the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba.

The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals that sometimes included criticism of 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, in 2011, a televised mass on September 8, the feast day of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the country’s patron saint. The Council of Churches, the government-recognized Protestant umbrella organization, was authorized to host monthly two hour-long radio broadcasts.

The government worked with the Catholic Church to facilitate the public procession of an icon honoring the Virgin of Charity to mark the 400th anniversary of her appearance in Cuba. The procession concluded in December with a public open-air mass in Havana attended by over 3,000 citizens as well as by government officials. It was the first country-wide religious procession permitted since the Cuban revolution.

The Catholic Church is slowly increasing the scope of the activities it is willing and able to conduct in Cuba. The relief work of Caritas and various parishes after the 2008 hurricanes has earned the Church some additional street credibility. Some parishes also offer soup kitchens, medicines, and some form of parochial education for children, all of which are at risk since they technically compete with the Cuban Government's desire for complete control over the provision of social services. The Church goes to great lengths to keep a low profile and stay out of any public discussions that may be deemed political, or certainly counter-revolutionary. For years, the Church has worked to distance itself from well-known opposition figures who are also devout Catholics such as Oswaldo Paya and Dagoberto Valdes. As such, any activities the Church may be carrying out to prepare for a post-Castro Cuba are not being shared either from the pulpit or in our private discussions with Church officials. The church hierarchy, from the Cardinal on down to parish priests, complains that emigration decimates the ranks of the laity and that they have to engage in constant recruitment merely to replace those laity who emigrate.

Religious organizations reported significant ability to attract new members without government interference. Many churches reported increased participation in religious instruction for children because government schools no longer scheduled competing activities on Saturdays or Sundays. The majority of religious groups reported little interference from the government in conducting their services and saw improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events. Some religious groups found it easier to bring in foreign religious workers and restore houses of worship.

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.

Cuban religious groups -- including evangelical Christians, whose numbers are growing rapidly -- have benefited from the relative relaxation of official restrictions on religious organizations and activities. Although particularly hard hit by emigration, Cuba's small Jewish community continues to hold services in Havana and has pockets of faithful in Santiago, Camaguey, and other parts of the island. Assistance from Jewish communities abroad, including arranging for visiting rabbis and rabbinical students, helps to keep the Hebrew faith alive in Cuba.

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Page last modified: 04-04-2013 18:08:29 ZULU