U.S. report says religious freedom in Cuba is bad but getting better

Cuban government restrictions on religion remain severe although they have been eased on several fronts over the past year, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on freedom of religion around the world.

“In China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, religious activity was only lawful if explicitly authorized by the state,” said the executive summary of the country-by-country report, made public on Monday.

The report confirmed a recent trend toward expanded freedom on the practice of religion in Cuba — officially atheist from 1962 to 1992 — alongside continued tight controls in those places where religion intersects with politics.

“This report parallels what I have been hearing from Cuba — more freedom but no politics … unless they agree with the government,” said Marcos Antonio Ramos, a retired Miami pastor and historian of religion.

Most of the religious groups on the island reported reduced government interference in attracting new members, conducting services, importing religious materials and receiving donations from overseas, the State Department reported.

They also found it easier to conduct charitable, educational and community service projects, it added, including health and nutrition assistance to the elderly and after-school classes for children.

Government officials made it easier to bring in foreign religious workers and restore houses of worship, and returned several church properties confiscated in the 1960s, according to the report.

However, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), “monitors and regulates almost every aspect of religious life,” the report said.

Government officials “harassed outspoken religious leaders, prevented human rights activists from attending religious services, and in some cases employed violence to prevent activists from engaging in public political protests” after services, it added.

The government also routinely detained members of the dissident group Ladies in White to prevent them from attending Catholic Mass on Sundays, especially in the provinces of Matanzas, Holguin, Villa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba, according to the report.

“Most religious leaders reported they exercised self-censorship in what they preached” out of fear of government reprisals, it said. And some groups said the government seized and distributed assistance sent to them for victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

A national TV program on Nov. 12 called evangelical churches “subversive organizations” and “part of a grand plan by the U.S. government to undermine the Cuban government,” according to the report.

Some religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are not officially recognized, and members are subject to “pervasive monitoring of their movements, telephone calls, visitors, and religious meetings.”

Most of the so-called “home churches” established because of a lack of buildings have never been officially recognized but operate with little or no interference from the government, the report said.

The Roman Catholic Church runs two seminaries and the island nation has several interfaith centers for educating pastors, it said, but Cuba does not allow religious grammar or high schools or universities.

The State Department said the Roman Catholic Church claims that 60 percent to 70 percent of all Cubans were baptized and estimated membership in Protestant churches at 5 percent of the country’s 11 million population, with Baptists and Pentecostals likely the largest.

Many Cubans also practice religions rooted in Africa but mixed with elements of Catholicism, such as Santeria, making it difficult to estimate membership, the State Department reported.