The government harassed, detained, and restricted travel for outspoken religious figures, especially those who discussed human rights or collaborated with independent human rights groups. The government often detained and threatened a Baptist pastor and religious freedom activist as well as members of his congregation. They also confiscated religious materials. The pastor said state security officials detained younger members of his congregations and threatened imprisonment if they continued their activities.
Many religious leaders stated they exercised self-censorship in what they preached and discussed during services. Some said they feared direct or indirect criticism of the government could result in government reprisals, such as denials of permits from the ORA or other measures that could limit the growth of their religious groups.
Some independent evangelical churches reported that government authorities closely monitored and detained, for unspecified periods of time, their leadership and members of their families. Pastors and members of these groups were often prevented from attending some church events and told to cease all religious activity. One evangelical organization reported in May that state security forces threatened to harm its leader, his family, and members of their church. The pastor of the evangelical organization said officials had confiscated religious materials from his home and had not returned them.
The ORA allowed the use of private homes, known as “house churches,” for religious services but required that recognized groups seek approval for each proposed location through the formal registration process. Many religious groups used private homes for this purpose in response to restrictions on constructing new buildings. Estimates of the total number of house churches for Protestant groups varied significantly, from fewer than 2,000 to as many as 10,000. Religious groups indicated that, while authorities approved many applications within two to three years from the date of the application, other applications received no response or were denied. According to the Protestant community, some groups were only able to register a small percentage of house churches. In practice, most unregistered house churches operated with little or no interference from the government. A number of religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, continued their wait for a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official recognition. These groups reported the authorities permitted them to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, make substantial renovations to their facilities, and send representatives abroad. They also reported that state security monitored their movements, telephone calls, visitors, and religious meetings.
Relatives of a pastor of an unregistered church in Havana reported the government arrested the pastor in February for holding unauthorized religious services and released him on August 31. He was not charged or tried, but while in prison, government officials told him that he was being held as punishment for his continued unauthorized religious activity.
The ORA continued to require a license to import religious literature and other religious materials. The government owned nearly all printing equipment and supplies and regulated printed materials, including religious literature. Religious leaders reported improvement in their ability to import religious materials. Several groups were successful in importing large quantities of Bibles. The Catholic Church and Protestant religious groups were able to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold forums that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies. The Church also broadcast Christmas and Easter messages on state-run radio stations. The ORA authorized the Cuban Council of Churches to host a monthly radio broadcast, which allowed the council’s messages to be heard throughout the country.
Some Protestant religious leaders reported they had religious material confiscated by immigration authorities at the airport. In October a Protestant pastor reported customs authorities took several religious books, and another pastor reported a similar incident in October, this time at the airport in Camaguey.
Some Protestant religious leaders reported the government attempted to stop or limit activity by threatening to expropriate property. Leaders of the Maranatha First Baptist Church in Holguin reported local government officials informed them in May that the government would confiscate their property pursuant to new legislation that went into effect in January. The property belonged to the church since 1947. After an outpouring of international support, church leaders said government officials informed the church in July they would review the decision. In December the government informed the church that it would not confiscate the property.
A number of registered and unregistered religious groups reported other churches had similarly been threatened with confiscation of their property. Methodist leaders reported threats of expropriation. They report that, to date, the government has expropriated 15 Methodist Church properties, and converted the original property owners into “permanent tenants of the state.” They said the authorities also designated nearly 100 Methodist establishments for forced closure or demolition in the provinces of Contramaestre, Santiago, and Guantanamo. A government decree in January granted government officials additional powers to expropriate property under new zoning restrictions and to change the status of the churches to rent paying tenants.
Several members of the Apostolic Movement, a Protestant denomination which the government has not registered, reported that state security officers threatened to evict them from their premises. A pastor continued his fight against the government’s expropriation of his property in Camaguey. Another member of the Apostolic Movement who heads a house church in Santiago de Cuba reported that in October he was advised he would be evicted from his home to accommodate a government project in his neighborhood. In response to the January decree, which involved expropriation of multiple house churches, members of a Baptist church in Santiago de Cuba reported they staged a “sleep in” with more than 500 protestors in early November. By year’s end, their church had yet to be expropriated.
Some religious leaders stated the ORA granted permission to repair or restore existing buildings more frequently than in years past, allowing expansion of some structures and in some cases construction of essentially new buildings on the foundations of the old. Other religious groups stated that securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible. Members of the Assemblies of God Church said the government prevented them from expanding their places of worship, including carrying out construction. Instead, they stated, the government threatened to dismantle or expropriate some of their churches because they were holding illegal services.
Several religious leaders, particularly those from smaller, independent house churches or Santeria communities, expressed concern the government was less tolerant of groups that relied on informal locations, including house churches and private meeting spaces, to practice their beliefs. They reported being monitored, and, at times, being prevented from holding religious meetings in their spaces.
More religious groups complained the ORA tightened controls on financial resources for churches. A few religious leaders reported restrictions on their ability to receive donations from overseas. They cited a measure that prohibited churches and religious groups from using individuals’ bank accounts for their organizations, and required existing individual accounts used in this way to be consolidated into one per denomination or organization. According to these religious leaders, the regulations allowed the government to curb the scope and number of activities of individual churches and to single out groups that could be held accountable for withdrawing money intended for purposes not approved by the government. Other religious leaders reported that withdrawals from bank accounts in the country were limited compared to their ability to get funds from external sources, which they described as “easier” than years before.
With the exception of two Catholic seminaries and several interfaith training centers, the government continued to prevent religious groups from establishing accredited schools. Churches challenged the limits on establishing religiously affiliated schools, but their appeals were denied. Although not specifically allowed or accredited, the government did not interfere with the efforts of some religious groups to operate before- and after-school programs and elder care, weekend retreats, and workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education. The Catholic Church offered coursework that led to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners, and several Protestant communities offered bachelor’s or master’s degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning.
Leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses encouraged members to avoid university education in the country, finding the requirements for university admission and the course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs prohibiting political involvement. Jehovah’s Witnesses specifically objected, based on incompatibility with their beliefs, to the expectation that students participate in political activities in support of the government and the requirement they be available for assignment to government duties for three years after graduation. By avoiding university institutions and corresponding political activities, Jehovah’s Witnesses were ineligible for some professional careers.
Pope Francis traveled to the country in September and conveyed messages promoting religious freedom and tolerance. The government provided resources for his trip, and released more than 3,500 prisoners, including some foreigners, before the pope arrived. Reports suggested, however, that state police prevented prominent human rights leaders Miriam Leiva, Berta Soler, and Martha Beatriz Roque from attending a ceremony to greet the pope and a subsequent church service led by him at a cathedral in Old Havana. Additionally, authorities detained members of the Ladies in White and other human rights activists as they attempted to attend the pope’s Mass in Havana’s Revolutionary Square.
Church leaders reported the government continued an unofficial practice of allowing civilian public service to substitute for mandatory military service for those who objected on religious grounds. Church leaders submitted official letters to a military committee, which then decided whether to grant these exemptions. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventist leaders stated their members generally were permitted to perform social service in lieu of military service.
Both the Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches reported they were able to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in some provinces. The Protestant seminary in Matanzas and churches in Pinar del Rio continued to train chaplains and laypersons to go into prisons and provide religious counseling for inmates, and to provide support for their families. During the year, they reported an increase in individuals interested in taking this training.
Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and the rest of the world. They reported being detained upon re-entry and questioned about their activity. Additionally, they stated that an easing of travel restrictions beginning in 2013 allowed voices of dissent and opposition to denounce violations of religious freedom when they were abroad. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and some reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.
Religious groups continued to report they were able to engage in community service programs, including providing assistance to the elderly, providing potable water to small towns, growing and selling fruits and vegetables at below-market prices, and establishing health clinics. International faith-based charitable operations, such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana.