Annual U.S. report on religious freedoms says Cuba eased some controls but still imposed many restrictions

Cuba’s communist government eased controls on religious activities in the past year but overall maintained “significant restrictions” on freedom of religion on the island, according to a U.S. State Department report.

Most religious leaders in Cuba acknowledged that they exercise self-censorship in their sermons, and a number were arrested after they criticized the government, according to the department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

“Many feared that direct or indirect criticism of the government could result in government reprisals… or other measures that could stymie the growth of their organizations,” said the 2012 report, which was made public Monday.

Several pastors in eastern Cuba also reported that authorities detained them for trying to distribute aid to Hurricane Sandy victims and confiscated the aid, the report added. Some religious groups reported they were not allowed to hand out the aid directly to families and instead had to turn it over to the government for distribution.

However, many religious groups reported reduced government interference during the year in holding services, attracting new members, organizing social programs, importing personnel and materials, receiving foreign donations and traveling abroad, the report said.

But “significant restrictions remained,” it added, because while the Cuban constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the ruling Communist Party of Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs monitors and licenses virtually all activities.

“The trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year,” added the report, written by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Government officials invited Pope Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus, to visit in March 2012, the report noted, but then arrested several hundred opposition activists or barred them from leaving their homes to keep them from attending the papal masses.

Authorities also regularly prevented the dissident Ladies in White from attending religious services — especially at the Our Lady of Charity National Shrine Basilica in El Cobre in eastern Cuba — and “routinely used government-organized” groups to harass them, it added.

Religious groups reported that the government made it easier during 2012 to repair and sometimes expand places of worship, although permission to buy new land or build totally new temples remained difficult to obtain, according to the report.

Several smaller religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, continued their long wait for official government recognition yet were allowed to hold religious services, the report said.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, once harshly treated because of their members’ refusal to serve in the military, now say that they are generally permitted to participate in social service in lieu of military service.

Catholics and other churches were allowed to print some periodicals and operate websites “with little or no formal censorship,” the report said, and some religious groups operated soup kitchens, retreats and health and educational programs.

The Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches, an umbrella group of Protestant churches, reportedly were able to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in most provinces.

“There were reports, however, that prison authorities did not inform inmates of their right to religious assistance, delayed months before responding to requests, and limited visits to a maximum of two or three times per year,” the State Department report added.

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