News and Facts about Cuba

In Cuba, religious freedom remains a dream

Posted on Friday, 09.07.12

In Cuba, religious remains a dream


Five nuns from Our Lady of the Good Shepherd's congregation returned to

Cuba on Aug. 28 with a small statue they had taken 50 years ago when

they left after Cuba's communist revolution. As recognition of the Cuban

government's "advances" toward freedom of religion, the Episcopal

Conference of Cuba noted that the religious act was "another sign of the

improved relations between the church and the government."

Interestingly, this past summer, during remarks on the State

Department's annual report on International Religious Freedom, Secretary

of State Hillary Clinton said, "Freedom of religion is not just about

religion." For Cubans, in particular, this is very true.

In Cuba, every aspect of life is controlled by the state. Freedoms in

general — and specifically freedom of religion — are not fully

available, and of those who publicly profess a creed exists

today. Freedom of religion is a right that every human being should be

allowed to enjoy without restriction of any government or political entity.

Religion in Cuba must be presented in the context of its recent history,

in a spirit of truth and justice, putting aside our personal interests

or agendas — with no other objective except the truth.

When we talk about Cubans and religion, we must begin with what the

people in Cuba have experienced and are experiencing today.

From the 1960s until 1990, discrimination against Christians slowed the

growth of churches. Christians suffered under Cuban communism. In the

early years some pastors and priests were placed in "re- camps"

a type of "concentration camp" where they were forced to perform manual

labor in in order to survive — and where many met their

death. These so-called camps were part of a rehabilitation program known

as "military units to help agricultural production" or "UMAP" by its

Cuban acronym.

Christians and their families could not receive a good education or good

jobs. This pushed religious people to the lowest levels of society. Even

by the mid-1980s, Cuba's government declared Christians could still not

hold jobs where they would influence other people, especially children.

This means no Christian teachers, social workers, counselors, etc. The

result of these restrictions was that very few people wanted to be

associated with Christianity as it would lead to the loss of job or

status, as well as other discrimination.

One of the hardest realities of this strategy is that children are

shamed by their teachers and others to disown religious symbols and

renounce religious practices.

In his last newsletter published only a few weeks before his death,

Oswaldo Payá, a Catholic, wrote that it is "shameful that a child must

feel fear in her because she attended a church service."

Religious leaders endure persecution and at times undergo threats from

government officials. Some face difficult decisions when their lives and

their families' lives are threatened. Due to fear, they comply with

restrictions or requests to cease certain religious activity, such as

outdoor concerts or baptism events.

Specific sectors of society, like the and members of the military

and their families, are still discouraged from participating in

religious services. Lawyers, government workers and journalists are

often effectively barred, usually under threat of losing their jobs.

Although officially the government does not favor any one church or

religion, it appears to be more tolerant of those churches that maintain

close relations with the state, such as those that belong to the

"government friendly" Cuban Council of Churches.

It rewards them with special benefits (such as permits for outdoor

services and youth camps). This exclusive favoritism is the cause for

division with other religious institutions in the country.

The absence of religious freedom creates a climate of fear and lack of

trust, which weakens civil society and creates greater distance between

the citizens and those who govern them. And therefore makes it more

difficult to achieve any type of common national agenda.

Cubans should be free to promote the understanding of religious freedom

embodied in the Universal Declaration of (1948) and other

international covenants to their fellow citizens.

Article 18 of the declaration states: "Everyone has the right to freedom

of thought, conscience and religion; this includes freedom to change his

religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with

others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in

teaching, practice, worship and observance."

The Cuban government has it wrong. These are human rights which provide

dignity. It is the inherent patrimony of all human beings and a right of

all Cubans. This is not something "allowed" or "gifted" by any country.

Instead, it is the responsibility of governments' to protect.

In Cuba, the church should be free to define the mission it believes it

has received. Christians, Catholics and other believers must be free to

practice their faith in whatever manner they believe necessary.

Unfortunately this is not the case.

Teo A. Babun, Jr., is executive director of ECHOcuba, a Christian

organization committed to helping support the independent church in Cuba.

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