Churches Reject US Report on Religious Freedom

By Patricia Grogg

Reverend Raul Suarez
Reverend Raul Suarez

HAVANA, Oct. 11 (IPS) – Pastors and representatives of Protestant churches expressed their disagreement with a report from the United States that describes Cuba as one of the countries that restrict the practice of religion and said that, on the contrary, they have absolute freedom to practice their faith.

The U.S. report shows “ignorance, falsehood and manipulation,” Cuban Baptist pastor Raul Suarez told IPS, in rebuttal of the U.S. State Department’s 2008 Report on International Religious Freedom, according to which the government of Cuba “continued to place restrictions on freedom of religion.”

According to the report, the Venezuelan government, “motivated by political reasons,” had also made “some efforts to limit the influence of religious groups.”

The document, released in mid-September by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, did however admit that the national constitutions of Cuba and Venezuela recognize the rights of citizens to practice any religious belief, within the framework of respect for the law.

It also says that in the case of Cuba, “many religious organizations noted a slight improvement in religious freedom,” and the authorities “permitted apolitical religious activity in government-approved sites,” although “the government does not permit private schools, including religious schools.”

According to the report, the government of this Caribbean island requires religious groups to register with the Ministry of Justice to obtain official recognition, and religious wedding ceremonies are only allowed after a compulsory civil marriage. “This statement shows ignorance, because this is not a requirement imposed by the government,” Suárez said.

The pastor said that most churches require that a marriage be duly legalized by the authorities. “I do not deny this, but not everyone follows that rule,” said Suarez, who has been a member of the Cuban parliament for a number of years.

Suarez said emphatically that no citizen of his country is prevented from practicing the faith and rites of his or her choice. “Neither do we have any difficulty whatsoever in carrying out our community work,” through the ecumenical Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre (CMLK), founded in 1987, he said.

Reverend Suárez is the founder and coordinator of the Center, which defines itself as “a Christian-inspired organization engaged in inter-faith dialogue, which works prophetically and in solidarity with the Cuban people and its churches, on training and education to promote informed, organized and critical popular participation to bring about social justice.”

The U.S. report was also rejected by representatives of religious institutions belonging to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) and other Cuban organizations, such as the Yoruba Cultural Association, the Soka Gakkai Association, the Sephardic Hebrew Centre and the Islamic League.

At the end of an inter-faith forum for constructive dialogue and analysis of common concerns, convened by the CIC and held on Oct. 2 in Havana, pastors and religious leaders issued a joint declaration in which they describe the report from Washington as “based on disinformation and a lack of knowledge of Cuban reality.”

Suarez complained that for the past several years the United States has refused to grant entry visas to him and other members of the CIC and the CMLK, which prevents them from having normal relations with their “historical counterparts” in the United States.

“This situation also affects institutions there (in the United States), because we haven’t been able to welcome sister delegations from our neighbor to the north for a long time, so we no longer have those exchanges that were a blessing to us,” he said. The reason given for the denial of visas is that “our presence there is against Washington’s interests.”

The CIC has a monthly radio program, which may be expanded and take place more frequently in future. Free access to the media is an item pending on the agenda of the Catholic Church, which would also like to participate in education, at present provided free and exclusively by the Cuban state.

In an interview this year with the Cuban theoretical journal Temas, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, said relations between the Catholic hierarchy and the government “are good, although they could be better, with a greater degree of openness towards the Church.”

Ortega said that the bishops have been able to give speeches in several provinces on Catholic holidays. “In the future we would like to see a program that is not broadcast solely on an occasional basis, but with a regular frequency, monthly or weekly,” the archbishop said.

The constitution defines Cuba as a secular state, with equality of all religions before the law, and the right of all citizens to profess the religious faith of their choice, to change their religion, to hold more than one belief simultaneously, or to profess none.

Article 8 of the constitution, approved in 1976 and modified in 1992, declares that the state “recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of religion,” that religious institutions are separate from the state, and that “different beliefs and religions enjoy equal consideration.”