International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law; however, in law and in practice, the Government places restrictions on freedom of religion.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Overall human rights conditions remained poor in the wake of the Government's jailing of 75 human rights activists and independent journalists in 2003, the biggest such crackdown in more than two decades. In general, unregistered religious groups continued to experience varying degrees of official interference, harassment, and repression. Some unregistered religious groups were subject to official censure, and also faced pressures from registered religious groups. The Government's policy of permitting apolitical religious activity to take place in government-approved sites remained unchanged. However, citizens worshipping in officially sanctioned churches often were subject to surveillance by state security forces, and the Government's efforts to maintain a strong degree of control over religion continued.

There were some tensions among religions, often because some religious groups perceived others to be too close to the Government. Tension within the Pentecostal movement continued to increase due to the establishment of house churches, which some churches believed was divisive.

The U.S. Government has raised issues of human rights, including religious discrimination and harassment, with Government officials; however, the Government has dismissed these concerns. The U.S. Government continues to urge international pressure on the Government to cease its repressive practices. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana continues to maintain regular contact with various religious leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 68,888 square miles, and its population is approximately 11 million. There is no independent authoritative source on the size or composition of religious institutions and their membership. A 1953 survey indicated that 93 percent of the population identified themselves as Roman Catholic. According to more recent information from the U.S.-based Puebla Institute, approximately 40 to 45 percent of the population was believed to identify themselves, at least nominally, with the Roman Catholic Church. A significant number of citizens share or have participated in syncretistic Afro-Caribbean beliefs, such as Santeria. Some sources estimate that as much as 70 percent of the population practice Santeria or la regla lucumi, which have their roots in West African traditional religions.

The Baptists, represented in four different conventions, are possibly the largest Protestant denomination, followed closely by the Pentecostal churches, particularly the Assemblies of God. Twenty-two denominations, including Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, are members of the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC). Most CCC members are officially recognized by the State, though several, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, are not registered and are recognized only through their membership in the CCC. Another 31 officially recognized denominations, including members of Jehovah's Witnesses and the small Jewish community, do not belong to the CCC.

Although much of the population is nominally Roman Catholic, historically the country has been a largely secular society without an especially strong religious character. Catholic Church officials usually estimate that approximately 10 percent of baptized Catholics attend Mass regularly. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 500,000 persons. No figures on the number of Pentecostals are available. The Seventh-day Adventists claim about 30,000 persons. Prior to 2001, church attendance had grown in some denominations, and increased substantially at Catholic Church services following the Pope's visit in 1998. For at least 6 to 8 months after the Pope's visit, attendance was at unusually high levels. It has since stabilized at levels lower than the 1999 peak, but they remain higher than before the visit.

There are approximately 320 Catholic priests, 40 permanent deacons, and 650 nuns in the country, less than half the total prior to 1960. Overall numbers of church officials are only slightly higher than before the Papal visit, since most new arrivals replaced retiring priests or those whose time of service in the country had ended.

Foreign missionary groups operate in the country through registered churches.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law; however, in law and in practice, the Government places restrictions on freedom of religion. The Constitution has provided for the separation of church and state since the early 20th century. In 1992, the Constitution was changed, and references to scientific materialism or atheism were removed. The Government does not favor any particular religion or church; however, the Government appears to be most tolerant of those churches that maintain close relations with the State through the CCC.

The Government requires churches and other religious groups to register with the provincial Registry of Associations within the Ministry of Justice to obtain official recognition. Registration procedures require groups to identify where they will carry out their activities, demonstrate that they have the funding for these activities, and obtain certification from the Registry of Associations that they are not duplicating the activities of a previously registered organization. Although no new denominations were registered during the period covered by this report, the Government has tolerated some new religions, such as the Baha'i faith and a small congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). However, in practice the Government appears to have halted registration of new denominations, although no groups were known to have applied for and been denied registration during the period covered by this report.

Registration allows church officials to obtain official permission to travel abroad and receive foreign visitors, to receive importedreligious literature through the CCC, and to meet in officially recognized places of worship. Conversely, members of unregistered religious groups must request exit permits on an individual basis, obtain religious materials through extra-legal means, and risk closure of their technically illegal meeting places.

Along with recognized churches, the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas, the Masons, human rights groups, and a number of nascent fraternal or professional organizations are the only associations outside the control or influence of the State, the Communist Party, and their mass organizations. The authorities continued to ignore other religious groups' applications for legal recognition, thereby subjecting members of such groups to potential charges of illegal association,though no such charges had been filed by the end of the period covered by this report.

The Government's main interaction with religious denominations is through the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party. The Ministry of Interior still engages in efforts to control and monitor the country's religious institutions, including surveillance, infiltration, and harassment of religious professionals and laypersons. In January an independent journalist interviewed a former Ministry of the Interior official who reported widespread government infiltration of civil and religious organizations. The former official reported that Afro-Caribbean religious groups were even more heavily targeted for infiltration than political opposition organizations. This is because some estimates state that 70 percent of the population practices these religions in some form, and therefore these groups are seen as a more grassroots "threat" to the Government.

The Government has relaxed restrictions on most officially recognized religious denominations. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses, once considered "active religious enemies of the revolution," are allowed to proselytize quietly door‑to‑door and generally are not subject to overt government harassment, although there continued to be sporadic reports of harassment by local Communist Party and government officials. The Government has authorized small assemblies of Jehovah's Witnesses and one large gathering of as many as 7,000 persons in March 2003. It has also allowed the opening of a central office in Havana, and publication of the group's magazine and other religious literature.

Religious literature and materials must be imported through a registered religious group and can only be distributed to officially recognized religious groups. The CCC controls distribution of Bibles to its members and to other officially recognized denominations. The CCC reports that it has distributed 1.5 million Bibles since 1998. Bibles are distributed among denominations according to the number of members of each church.

Several Catholic diocese and lay groups publish magazines, including "Palabra Nueva" (New Word) of the Archdiocese of Havana and "Vitral" (Stained Glass Window) of the Diocese of Pinar del Rio. The publications are not registered with the Ministry of Culture, as required by law. The Government has not blocked printing or distribution of Catholic magazines; however, the State impedes access to printing equipment by making equipment too costly or placing restrictions on sales. The Governmenthas accused the editor of one religious magazine of subversive behavior for writing about sensitive political and social issues.

Since 1992 the Communist Party has admitted as members persons who openly declare their religious faith.

The Government does not permit religious education in public schools and does not permit the operation of private schools of any kind, including religious schools.

During the period covered by this report, the Government allowed 9 foreign priests and 18 foreign nuns into the country to replace priests and nuns whose residence permits had expired; however, the applications of 60 additional priests and 130 additional nuns remained pending. The Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates that some applications have been pending for two to three years, and some names are eventually dropped from the list altogether. A request from the Conference of Catholic Bishops for the Government to permit 15 Catholic orders to establish a presence was also pending at the end of the period covered by this report, which the bishops argue limits the training of Catholic seminarians.

In September 2003, the Office of Religious Affairs of the Communist Party advised Pablo Fuentes, a Spanish-national Catholic Priest in Havana Province, that the Government would not extend his authorization to remain in the country. Fr. Fuentes left the country on September 30, 2003. Earlier in 2003, authorities revoked authorization for Fuentes to hold a procession marking the feast day of the patron saint of the town of Managua because Fuentes was "politically unreliable," apparently because his religious activities were too visible, and therefore were considered controversial by the Government.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Government led to strong confrontations with institutional churches in the early 1960s. During that period, many church leaders and religious professionals, fearing persecution, left the country. More than 130 Catholic religious workers, including priests, were expelled, and a few served long prison terms. From 1965-67 the Government forced many priests, pastors, and others "who made religion a way of life" into forced labor camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPS), alongside homosexuals, vagrants, and others considered by the regime to be "social scum." The UMAP system ended in 1967; however, over the following 30 years, the Government and the Communist Party systematically discriminated against and marginalized persons who openly professed their faith by excluding them from certain jobs, such as teaching. Although the Government abandoned its official atheism in the early 1990s, most churches had been weakened seriously, and active participation in religious services fell drastically.

A 2002 Ministry of the Armed Forces political indoctrination manual describes the Catholic Church as "a decisive instrument for the defense of the colonial and neocolonial regimes that governed our country until the 1959 [revolution]. It is this historical fact which created the conditions for anticlerical sentiment in broad sectors of our society." The same document states that the Catholic Church has resigned itself to the "triumph of the Revolution" and is now focused on using pastoral work and humanitarian assistance to gain new adherents.

In February 2003, the Archbishop of Havana issued a pastoral letter lamenting the disintegration of Cuban families and the extreme pressure to emigrate, and called upon the Government to shift from "policies of vengeance" to "policies of compassion."

In March 2003, the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an open letter in the Italian magazine "30 Giorni" criticizing the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party for strict controls over the activities of the Catholic Church, especially restrictions on religious education and Church access to the mass media. In September 2003, the Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document accusing the Government of imposing tighter restrictions on the Church and on society since the visit of Pope John Paul II, and calling on the Government to show clemency toward political prisoners.

Government officials criticized the Catholic Church for refusing to register Church and lay group publications with the Ministry of Culture, as required by law of all publications. The Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops indicated that the Church declines to register because registration would force it to concede control to the State regarding the content and format of Church publications.

The law allows for the construction of new churches once the required permits are obtained; however, the Government rarely has authorized construction permits, forcing many churches to seek permits to meet in private homes. Most registered religious groups are granted permission to hold services in private homes. Religious groups must also obtain a permit if they wish to reconstruct and repair existing places of worship. The process of obtaining a permit and purchasing construction materials from government outlets is lengthy and expensive. In January 2004, Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Fidel Castro presided over the consecration in Havana of a church for the small Greek Orthodox community, an event that the government media cast as evidence of the Government's religious tolerance. A Government website used a news report covering Patriarch Bartholomew's visit as "proof" that Amnesty International's criticism of religious restrictions was a "lie."

In 2001 the Italian news agency ANSA reported that provincial leaders of the Communist Party requested the authorities to ensure that the charitable work and donations provided by religious groups be limited. The party officials apparently believed that churches, especially the Catholic Church, had gained community support, which threatened the continued rule of the Communist Party through such activities. Following the publication of the article, Communist Party leaders in Havana reportedly apologized to the Catholic Church hierarchy.

Following complaints in 2000 by Pentecostals regarding unauthorized foreign missionaries (see Section III), the CCC has continued to request that overseas member church organizations assist them in controlling foreign missionaries and prohibiting them from establishing unauthorized Pentecostal churches. In May 2004, Reineiro Arce, the influential former president of the CCC, claimed that up to 70 foreign religious groups had established themselves in recent years by "taking advantage of the difficult economic situation and giving a pastor up to $100 a month." He claimed these new groups are part of a U.S. Government strategy to subvert the Government, and that the groups are not churches, but "sects and groups that come to destroy the work of the church."

Religious officials are allowed to visit prisoners; however, prison officials sometimes refuse visits to certain political prisoners. In September 2003, officials at Kilo 8 Prison in Camaguey Province threatened to suspend family visits for nine political prisoners who read aloud to each other from the Bible. For a religious visit to take place, the prisoner must submit a written request, and the prison director must grant approval. Some prisoners reported that prison officials ignored repeated written requests for religious visits. In punishment cells, prisoners were denied access to reading materials, including Bibles.

The Government continued to enforce a regulation that prevents any Cuban or joint enterprise (except those with specific authorization) from selling computers, facsimile machines, photocopiers, or other equipment to any church at other than the official--and exorbitant--retail price. In addition the Government denies access to the Internet to some religious groups, including the Catholic Church, which it deems unreliable. The Government controls the Internet and any group seeking legal access is subject to its controls. The Catholic Church has asked the Government for the past five years for permission to have Internet access; however, permission is always denied.

Members of the armed forces do not attend religious services in uniform, probably to avoid possible reprimand by superiors.

Education is secular, and no religious educational institutions are allowed. Religious instruction in public schools is not permitted. In the past, students who professed a belief in religion were stigmatized by other students and teachers and were disciplined formally for wearing crucifixes or for bringing Bibles or other religious materials to school. In some cases, these students were prohibited from attending institutions of higher learning or from studying specific fields; however, recently students who profess a belief in religion have been permitted to attend institutions of higher education.

Churches provide religious education classes to their members. Catholic Church officials report that the number of children attending catechism classes has continued to drop, mostly because of other activities, usually scheduled by local school authorities. There have been no reports of parents being restricted from teaching religion to their children.

Church officials have encountered cases of religious persons experiencing discrimination because of ignorance or personal prejudice by a local official. Religious persons encounter employment problems in certain professions, such as education.

Religious groups are required to submit a request to the local ruling official of the Communist Party before being allowed to hold processions or events outside of religious buildings. In July 2003, Communist Party officials in the city of East Havana barred a procession for the feast day of the Virgin of Carmen because the parish priest was a friend of Christian Liberation Movement leader Oswaldo Paya. Communist Party officials told the priest that he should inform his congregation that the Government had barred the procession specifically because of his friendship with Paya.

In September 2003, the Government permitted for the sixth consecutive year a procession in connection with Masses in celebration of the feast day of Our Lady of Charity in Havana. A number of religious and otheractivists participated in the procession. The authorities permitted a total of 50 processions nationwide to mark the feast day of Our Lady of Charity, but denied permission to 14 others because the latter were more politically and socially vocal, and therefore were not in line with government policy.

There were smaller, local processions throughout the provinces during the period covered by this report. For example, the Government permitted a May 2004 procession in the town of Managua which drew hundreds of participants.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government monitors all religious groups, including registered and established institutions. The authorities also monitor church-run publications. Government harassment of private houses of worship continued, with evangelical denominations reporting evictions from houses used for worship. According to CCC officials, most of the private houses of worship closed were unregistered, making them technically illegal.

The Ministry of the Interior continues to engage in efforts to control and monitor religious activities, and to use surveillance, infiltration, and harassment against religious groups and religious professionals and lay persons. There were continued sporadic reports that local Communist Party and government officials harassed members of Jehovah's Witnesses; however, church officials reported that the number of such incidents decreased.

State security officials visited some priests and pastors prior to significant religious events, ostensibly to warn them that dissidents were trying to "use the church"; however, some critics claimed that these visits were conducted to foster mistrust between the churches and human rights or pro-democracy activists. During the period covered by this report, State security agents warned the wives of several political prisoners that they would be arrested if they joined other wives of political prisoners for Mass at Havana's Santa Rita Catholic Church. Ministry of the Interior officers reportedly sat near spouses of political prisoners during Mass to intimidate them. Some of the wives continued to attend Mass together on a weekly basis, but said they feared government retaliation against them or against their jailed husbands. In many churches, most noticeably at Santa Rita's, the Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates that the number of State Security Agents attending Mass for the purpose of intimidating spouses of political prisoners has been growing. There are also reports of prison officials changing the dates and times that wives may telephone their spouses to Sunday morning, thereby forcing the spouses to choose between speaking with their spouses or attending Mass.

In June 2004, the Government prohibited La Pastora Catholic Church in Santa Clara from distributing donated medicine and soap. Government officials advised the church that such activities are not authorized and resulted in illegal public gatherings.

In 2000 a leading editor of one of the Catholic Church's magazines was criticized in a major editorial of the Communist Party's newspaper as a "known counter-revolutionary." In April 2003, the Government described the same Catholic Church magazine as "subversive literature" during the summary trials of 75 political prisoners arrested in March 2003.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses By Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Most persons who identify themselves as religious define themselves as Roman Catholic, although few attend Mass regularly. Catholicism has remained a major cultural reference since colonial times. After 40 years of the current regime, societal attitudes, including those toward religion, are conditioned heavily by the attitude of Fidel Castro and other government and ruling party leaders. The Government's decision to allow, and even provide some support for, the 1998 Papal visit greatly boosted the public perception that espousing religious faith was again acceptable. Fidel Castro further cemented this view, most importantly among Communist Party adherents and government officials, in nationally televised and broadcast speeches in which he claimed disingenuouslythat the Cuban Revolution had "never" persecuted religious believers.

There were some tensions among religions, often because some religious groups perceived others to be too close to the Government. Tension within the Pentecostal movement continued to increase due to the establishment of house churches, which some churches believed was divisive, and resulted in Government action against Pentecostal worshippers. In addition, Pentecostal members of the CCC have complained that the preaching activities of unauthorized foreign missionaries have led some of the members of their churches to establish new denominations without obtaining the required permits (see Section II).

The CCC is the only ecumenical body that is recognized by the Government. It comprises many Protestant, including Pentecostal, denominations and engages in dialogue with the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. The CCC and the Government generally have a mutually supportive relationship.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

U.S. Government policy is to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy and respect for human rights, including religious freedom, and the U.S. Government encourages the development of civil society, which includes the strengthening of religious institutions. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana maintains regular contact with the various religious leaders and communities, and supports nongovernmental organization initiatives that aid religious groups. The U.S. Government regularly seeks to facilitate travel to and from the country by religious persons, and delivery of donated goods and materials that in some cases are provided to religious institutions. The U.S. Interests Section has raised issues of human rights, including religious discrimination and harassment, with government officials; however, the Government has dismissed these concerns. The Interests Section reports on cases of religious discrimination and harassment, and the U.S. Government continues to urge international pressure on the Government to cease its repressive practices.