A church in Cuba that has opened its doors to the gay community has created a bit of controversy by also welcoming a leadership role to a polemic figure — even within the gay community — with direct ties to the government: Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl Castro.
Images of Mariela Castro blessing LGBTI couples and wearing a Christian pastor's garment during a recent Havana event for gay rights caused consternation both on and off the island, particularly among religious circles. The images accompanied several reports from Cuba's official news media on the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), founded with support of the National Center for Sex Education, known as Cenesex and headed by Castro. LGBTI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex.
“The stole is a symbol of the authority of Christ," said Miami Lutheran pastor Ignacio Estrada. "Mariela Castro should not use it.”
The stole was given to Castro by the MCC, which defines itself as a church that has a positive and inclusive message for the LGBTI communities and favors the unity of all Christian faiths.
The MCC has been closely tied to the Cenesex since its founding in 2016, and Castro has frequently participated in its ceremonies, offering blessings and counseling to LGBTI couples. A pastor and representative of the MCC board of directors, who agreed to speak with el Nuevo Herald on condition of anonymity, said the church is not trying to mix politics and religion.
“We know our mission is in Cuba and for Cuba. We work alongside those institutions that share our vision. Cenesex is one of them, and it's the one that has most supported our work, especially Mariela Castro, who is a loyal sympathizer of our church,” the pastor said.
He added that its principal goal is to signal the presence in Cuba of a church “that does not agree with the rest of the churches.
“There is a church in Cuba where the LGBTI community is completely accepted, without limitations or conditions,” the pastor said. “Mariela is a (parliament) deputy, the daughter of Raul, our friend and obviously a revolutionary, but that does not make us a communist church.”
Of Castro wearing of the stole, he said: “Many people see her as a pastor for the LGBTI community. She uses that symbol not from a religious point but as a symbol of a shepherd, a companion, a protector.”
The MCC was founded in the United States in 1968 and has more than 400 branches around the world. It has only about 100 members in Cuba and branches in Havana, Matanzas and Santa Clara. Its Global Justice Institute awarded Castro its “Be Justice” prize in 2016, and the following year Cenesex awarded MCC founder Troy Perry its highest prize.
Yadiel Hernández Hernández, a member of the First Baptist Church in Matanzas, called the relationship between Cenesex and MCC “a business.”
“MCC needs Cenesex and Mariela Castro because it has grown in Cuba with the help of that institution," he said. "At the same time, Mariela Castro and Cenesex use the church to promote their agenda.”
MCC is not recognized by the government-approved Council of Cuban Churches or the Communist Party office in charge of regulating churches in Cuba. Unlike other churches established on the island recently, however, it has been allowed to function.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which monitors abuses of freedom of religion, has reported that violations increased in Cuba in 2017. Several churches on the island have been unsuccessful in their applications for official recognition.
Victor M. Dueñas, a gay marriage activist who helped launch the “We also love” campaign in 2015, said he does not believe in Castro's “good intentions” toward the LGBTI community or MCC. “It's a betrayal of Christian communities,” said Dueñas, a Presbyterian church member who added that he favors an “inclusive” church but not “political agendas that can eclipse the Christian message.”
Dueñas, one of about 100 Cubans who asked for political asylum at a Netherlands airport last January, said Castro could be doing much more for the LGBTI community. “We have been waiting 10 years for the constitutional reform promised by Mariela Castro, to allow gay marriage. But in 2015, when other activists launched a campaign for it, she refused to support us,” he said.
Castro has said the Cuban government should not focus exclusively on gay marriage, and that the island's version of socialism should not seek “the simplest solution or repeat what others do.
“Cuba needs laws to protect LGBTI people from discrimination,” she has said, “to acknowledge police violence, to take steps to prevent it, and (to start) projects independent of the government to defend LGBTI rights — not hijack their message.”
Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba