Text and Photos by Kelly Knaub
HAVANA TIMES, July 23 – Victoria La Rosa, 48, recalls the night her friend Ricardo Cao called her while she was reading the Bible. “I was searching for something,” La Rosa said. When Cao asked La Rosa if she was Christian, she replied yes. La Rosa asked Cao if he was also Christian, and he replied that he was Bahá’í. La Rosa, never having heard of such a thing, argued with him about his faith.
Cao lent her several Bahá’í books and La Rosa remained skeptical until she read the third one, Thief in the Night, which describes the Biblical prophecies that are fulfilled in the Bahá’í Faith.
La Rosa read the book all night and couldn’t put it down until the following morning. She called Cao later that evening and told him she wanted to go to the place he talked about, which turned out to be the Bahá’í Center in Central Havana. La Rosa has been a Bahá’í follower ever since.
The Bahá’í Faith, which arrived to Cuba in 1939, is an independent religion that embraces more than 2,100 ethnic and tribal groups in over 218 nations and is the second most widespread faith after Christianity. The religion was founded just over 100 years ago by Bahá’u’lláh, a nobleman from Tehran, Iran, who claimed to be the most recent messenger of God.
Bahá’ís believe that all the prophets of the world’s great religions – Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad – were sent by God over time to educate the human race at each particular period in history. Unlike other religions, the Bahá’í Faith has not divided into sects or denominations.
La Rosa, who has been a Bahá’í for two years, said that the Baptist Church she previously attended did not fulfill her. “It didn’t convince me,” she said. “I read the Bible and I didn’t understand it. One person would give one interpretation of the Bible, and another person would give another, and neither of them convinced me.”
The main message of the Bahá’í Faith is unity. Bahá’u’lláh taught that there is only one God and one human race. The religion encompasses a belief system that is meant to promote the advancement of a global society.
Bahá’ís believe in the individual right to search for the truth, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, compatibility between science and religion, equality between the sexes, universal peace and education, and social and economic justice. Their goal is to one day select or create a universal language and establish a world federal system that would peacefully unite the people of the world.
The Bahá’í Faith in Cuba
Oscar Asensio, 38, has been a Bahá’í for six years. Although Asensio said it’s not difficult being a Bahá’í in Cuba, the religion – along with all other faiths – was ostracized by the Cuban Communist Party after the Revolution until the government began to permit religious freedom in the early nineties.
Asensio said that the dire economic crisis Cuba experienced during this era, known as The Special Period, made the government realize that they couldn’t prohibit religion anymore.
“It helps the population psychologically, he said. “So they opened doors and made changes in the system.”
In 1992, the National Assembly of People’s Power approved a new constitution that abandoned the former atheistic nature of the Cuban state. In 1998, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Havana opened an even wider space for religious freedom.
“Today you can practice religion, whatever religion, without any problem. This helped the Bahá’í Faith,” Asensio said.
Today, many practicing religious devotees hold positions in the Communist Party and National Assembly of People’s Power, though most are comprised of Catholics and Protestants.
“Cuba, right now, is living a rebirth of interest in religions,” Asensio said. “Because of the process of having lived 50 years of Revolution under a system that’s governed under the materialism of Marx and Engels, where that materialistic philosophy says that God doesn’t exist … the majority of the Cuban population doesn’t believe in God.”
Religion in Cuba
According to the Roman Catholic Church, about 60 percent of the Cuban population is Catholic, although this figure does not account for the number of active members.
Santería – a syncretic Afro-Cuban religion that was brought by Yoruba slaves and disguised under Catholicism – is widely practiced throughout the country. Protestants are estimated to compose 5 percent of the population and are comprised of Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and Quakers. There are also small communities of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as Mormons.
Although statistics on the number of Bahá’ís in Cuba are unavailable, Bahá’í representatives are located in Havana, Villa Clara and Camagüey City. Devotees in Havana attend the National Bahá’í Center in Central Havana, which was created in 2004. Many come on Sunday mornings to pray and connect with other Bahá’ís. The Center also holds other faith-oriented activities and informal gatherings at other times.
Although the Cuban state now permits religious freedom, some Bahá’ís, like La Rosa, encounter disapproval from their families.
“My whole family is Catholic and Christian, and Christians don’t accept Bahá’ís,” La Rosa said. But, she explained, her family accepts her faith “because there is no other alternative.”
“They pray a lot for me because they think I’m lost, that I’m wrong, but our relationship hasn’t ended because of it. They pray for me and I pray for them, so we help each other.”