A Distorted Reality

Cuba: a medley of religions. Numerous churches and religious denominations practice their faiths freely on the island, said Samuel Kobia, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), following his recent visit to the Caribbean island. The Cuban Constitution on Religion. Believers Join the Cuban Communist Party.

By Gladys Blanco and Luz Marina Fornieles Special for AIN

The presumed lack of any kind of freedom in Cuba is outstanding among the many distortions that exist today regarding the island's reality.

It's then hardly surprising that the empire includes in its arsenal of official, as well as media fallacies, the false idea that the island's inhabitants are denied the right to practice a religion of their choice.
Accustomed to spreading only what favors their evil purposes, the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush and its lackeys from the Florida-based Cuban-American National Foundation, pretend to not hear or see the facts, the truth…

In order to determine who is right, it would be enough to verify the differences between what the enemies of the Cuban Revolution say and the many achievements the island nation demonstrates to the world.


Everyday life in Cuba is open to anyone interested in getting to know and understand it. That was the experience of Reverend Samuel Kobia, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), who after spending almost one week on the island in August 2005, described his pastoral visit as excellent and very useful.

Born in Miathene, Kenya, in1947, and elected General Secretary of the WCC in 2003, Kobia affirmed that while on the island he had the opportunity to meet not only with followers of the member churches of his organization (Methodist and Presbyterian churches), but also with representatives of other churches, thus concluding that freedom of religion "is a reality in Cuba."
Kobia, the first African to hold such a high position, which he formally assumed in January 2004, became the leader of an organization that groups over 400 million Christians the world over. It was in that capacity that he visited Cuba.

Speaking with Cuban and foreign press, Samuel Kobia revealed that he and his delegation met one night with President Fidel Castro and had a long and "very good" conversation.

"We discussed different issues, among them Church-State relations. We also requested permission to build new churches on the island that facilitate our pastoral mission," said Kobia, who affirmed that "the Cuban government places no restrictions on religion and supports the building of new churches."


Cuba is a medley of religions. The Christian faith was brought to the island by Spanish colonialists at the beginning of the 16th century.

In the course of five centuries, religious life has been enriched tremendously with new religious faiths and institutions of different types.

The Spanish colonialist contributed his own religion - Catholicism - and, in the process of the disappearance of the island's native population and the introduction of African slaves to work in agriculture and domestic service, he also contributed to the introduction into Cuba of the religious faiths of the African slaves.

Experts indicate that along with the Catholic Church -- represented by priests and the worship of images, especially the Virgin Mary -- many other religious faiths were also brought to the island, some of them involving a great deal of superstition and Medieval beliefs.

At the close of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the Protestant and Evangelist Churches were brought to the island from the United States, as well as all the other religious faiths that today characterize the religious spectrum of the Caribbean island.


In Cuba, the Roman Catholic Church is made up of the Cuban Catholic Bishops' Conference (COCC), led today by Monsignor Jaime Ortega Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, who was named Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994. In 1995, Cardinal Ortega was elected First Vice President of the Latin-American Episcopal Council (CELAM).

It has eleven dioceses: Pinar del Río, Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Ciego de Avila, Camagüey, Holguín, Bayamo- Manzanillo, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo- Baracoa.
At the beginning of the past century, there were only two dioceses on the island: Havana, dating from 1787 and Santiago de Cuba, founded in Baracoa -the first village founded by Spanish colonialists-and moved to Santiago de Cuba in 1522. In 1803, the diocese of Santiago de Cuba was declared archbishopric. Today, there are three archbishoprics: Havana, Camagüey (the latest) and Santiago de Cuba.

There are currently over 500 Catholic churches on the island, along with hundreds of mission houses and also social assistance institutions, seminaries, monasteries and religious congregations of priests and nuns. Priests, nuns and believers -members of 56 orders of nuns and 24 orders of priests- teach freely on the island.

The church has requested to increase the number of clergy.
Among the orders of priests, the Paules, Dominicans, Jesuits, Franciscans, Escolapios and Capuchins stand out. Others include the Hermanitos de Jesús (Brothers of Jesus), which carries out social work, the San Juan de Dios hospital order, which runs a psychiatric hospital with the same name in the neighborhood of Los Pinos and the San Rafael rest home in Marianao - all of them in the capital.

The pastoral and humanitarian mission of several religious communities of nuns include, among others, looking after the sick, the elderly and the disabled in different institutions like the Santovenia home, the Edad de Oro residential home for the disabled, the San Francisco de Paula home, the San Vicente complex, the Santa Susana hospital in Havana and a hospital for patients suffering from leprosy, located in El Rincón, on the outskirts of the capital.

All these welfare institutions have the support of the State to develop their health care activities.
Other religious orders of nuns present on the island include also the Salesians of Mary, the Servants of Mary, Sisters of St. Theresa, the Oblate Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.

There are also educational religious institutions, such as the Seminario Mayor de San Carlos y San Ambrosio, in Old Havana, which trains theologians and philosophers and the Seminario Menor de San Basilio el Magno, in Santiago de Cuba, with some one hundred students altogether.

The first Cuban intellectual who came out in favor of Cuba's independence from Spanish colonialism at the beginning of the 19th century was priest Félix Varela, who was a teacher at the Seminario de San Carlos y San Ambrosio. Cuba's National Culture Order, instituted by the Revolution, bears his name.

The National Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of "El Cobre" -the Patron Saint of Cuba-is located in eastern Santiago de Cuba in a mountainous region near by the town of El Cobre, of which it carries the name.

Pope Benedict XV named the Virgin of Charity the patron saint of Cuba, and in 1936, she was crowned accordingly. In 1977, the church was conferred the title of Minor Basilica, a distinction granted by the Catholic Church to churches with an outstanding religious tradition.
In 1998, on the occasion of his visit to Cuba, the late Pope John Paul II again crowned the image of the Virgin of Charity.


During the colonial period, no religion -except for the Catholic religion- was permitted on the island. Followers of other religious faiths were subjected to constant persecution.

With the pope's permission, in the New World the Spanish Crown administered the Church through the power exerted by viceroys and governors.

The opening of new churches and their expenses, and presenting the Pope with proposals as to who should be designated to high Church positions, including bishops, became a duty of the King as part of his clerical control over the island.

Each town built a church, run by the parish priest with costs covered by lithe -a tax for the support of the clergy (the faithful had to pay one tenth of the annual produce of land, cattle raising or any other economic activity).

By the 1870s, evangelical churches began to develop in Cuba, despite the colonial government's refusal to recognize them.

Prior to this, there was only knowledge of some evangelical worship services during the 18th century, at the time of the taking over of Havana by the English.

After the 1878 Zanjón Pact, which marked the end of the first stage of the Cuban independence struggle, Cuban patriots who migrated to Philadelphia, New York, Jacksonville, Florida and other U.S. States learned about Protestantism.

Some time later, some of them came back to the island and organized evangelical churches in different parts of the country.

At the end of the 1895 war and after the U.S. intervention, missionaries from the U.S. Council of Churches began to arrive on the island, primarily U.S. citizens and others who were trained at U.S. seminaries.

The first to arrive were the Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal (the American version of the Anglican Church), Quakers (Holland), the Baptist Conventions (Western, Eastern and Free) and the Lutheran Church.

Late Protestantism, which emerged in the United States in the 19th century, arrived on the island as of 1902. Among these we have Pentecostal church, the Salvation Army, the Cuban Seventh Day Adventist Church of Nazareth, the Los Pinos Nuevos Evangelical Convention of Cuba and the Bando Evangélico Gedeón. The last two originated in Cuba.

There are currently a total of 54 evangelical denominations on the island with approximately 900 churches distributed island wide.

Organizations such as the Cuban Council of Churches, the island's Movement of Christian Students (MEC) and the Worker-Student Organization (COEBAC) operate freely on the island.
The Cuban Council of Churches has among its members 22 evangelical churches, three observers, 11 national ecumenical movements. The Council also has Cuba's Hebrew Community and the Associación de Autorealización Yoga among its fraternal associates.

Internationally, the Council maintains close relations with institutions such as the World Council of Churches and the Christian Peace Conference.

In Matanzas, some one hundred kilometers east of Havana, there is the Evangelical Seminary of Theology, which runs three churches: Methodist, Reform Presbyterian and Episcopal (Anglican).
Other churches that have seminaries to train religious ministers include also the Bando Evangélico Gedeón, Seventh Day Adventist of Nazareth Church, Cuba's Los Pinos Nuevos Evangelical Convention and the island's Baptist Conventions (Eastern, Western, Free).


Known separately as cults of African origin, syncretic religions, African-Cuban religions or more exactly as Cuban religions of African origin, the Santería or Regla de Ocha or Yoruba Religion, the Regla Conga or Palo Monte, the Regla Arará and the Sociedad Abakuá (Abakuá Society) emerged in Cuba.

The Yoruba --an ethnic group that originally came from Nigeria, Africa-- developed the Santería or Regla de Ochoa, which is characterized by the worship of the orishas (Gods). At the beginning, it idealized natural forces, like the source of rivers or the fury of the winds or thunders, just to mention three. The idealizations evolved into human representations, usually great warriors and popular figures, some of whom were believed to have healing abilities.

As the island's inhabitants learned more about the Catholic saints, the slaves found similarities between these and their orishas, obliged as they were to disguise their African gods.
This led to a syncretism with the Catholic religion, evidence of which is the orisha-Catholic saint identity. That identity began to be commonly called "el santo" (the saint) and that is why the cult is known as Santería and those who practice it "santero" and "santera."

The top hierarchy is held by the babalaos (priests). Other lower rank leaders include the babalochas, iyalochas and oriates. Experts considered this to be the most complex of all the existing cults of African origin in Cuba, with the largest number of original elements.

The Yorubas believed in the existence of a Creator that they usually called Olofi, which facilitated disguising it as The Creator (God) of the Catholics.

Bantu-speaking slaves were brought here from Congo, Zaire and Angola. Their beliefs gave rise to the Regla Conga or Palo Monte. Inspired by the strength of nature, it advocates that the supernatural is based on nature: the forest. It is the religion of the paleros. They use Catholic altars and rituals like baptism, holy water, mass and also involves a great deal of magic.

In Cuba, there are three expressions of this belief: Mayombe, Briyumba and Kimbisa.
The Regla Arará, which in the 19th century had large numbers of followers in Cuba, originated in the region of Dahomey -today's the Republic of Benin. It prevails even today in some Cuban western regions.

One of the most venerated gods of the arará religion is Babalú-ayé, also known as Yoruba and worshiped by followers of that cult as well. It is the syncretism of an orisha with St. Lázaro, the leprous man with crutches and accompanied by two dogs that appears in a parable of the Gospel of St. Luke.
The image of the leprous man with crutches and the two dogs remained throughout the Middle Ages and became very popular here in Cuba. In the first decades of the 20th century it was removed from the churches because it was not considered a saint, but the representation of a parable.

The Carabalíes were brought here from Calabar, located between Nigeria and Cameron. At that time, the carabalí people were going through a process of consolidation of the patriarchal regime. They created the secret society of Abakuá men, whose norms recall charitable societies. Their rituals, of markedly African characteristics, include language, music, dances and also Catholic elements.

A secret society of the ekpe type, the Efik Buton, originated in 1834 in the town of Regla, located on the shore of the Havana Bay. It was the first secret society of its type, although some documents point to its existence back in 1812. Its members were called ñáñigos or abakuás.


In Cuba, there are also other religious faiths like Judaism, organized in Jewish communities with around 1,500 members and three synagogues in Havana and another two in Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba. Voodoo, for its part, originated in Haiti as a syncretism of French religions with African cults. With a very limited presence today, it exists in Camagüey and in some eastern regions. Other religious faiths were brought by temporary farm workers coming from China, Yucatan and people from other parts of the world.

There is also the Theosophical Society and other small groups of followers of Bahaism, which has an Eastern, philosophical character.

During the colonial period, Spiritualism was brought to Cuba from Europe and later also from North America. It had three main forms: the so-called Scientific Spiritualism, of cordon -- the most widespread-- and the "cruzao", which mixes with syncretic expressions, some of them from late Protestantism, such as Pentecostalism. There is also a sort of Christian spiritualism, while Adventists believe in predestination.

There are also spiritualists who conduct private sessions and are not affiliated with any association or institution.

Sociological research and studies reveal that most Cuban believers are followers of what has been called "religiosidad popular" (popular religious belief), which mixes -- to a greater or lesser extent -- some of the above mentioned religious denominations, especially the Christian faith, those of African origin and Spiritualism.


Cuba is characterized by its respect for all religions established on the island. In September 1992, the National Assembly of People's Power (also known as the Cuban Parliament) passed the Constitutional Reform Law, which introduced modifications to the important document, including those related to the issue of religion.

Article Eight of the Constitution stipulates the recognition of, respect for and guarantee of the right to freedom of religion by the State. It also specifies the separation of religious institutions and the State and that all different faiths and religions enjoy equal consideration, while also strengthening and specifying the guarantees already included in the Constitution, which were approved by referendum in 1976.

Likewise, any form of discrimination --on the grounds of race, color, sex, place of origin, religious beliefs or any other that is detrimental to human dignity - is prohibited and punished by law (Article 42, on Equality).

Under the Constitution, the State recognizes, respects and guarantees the freedom of conscience and religion. It also recognizes, respects and guarantees every citizen's right to change his/her religious belief or not have any at all, and to follow, in close observance of the law, a religious faith of his/her own choosing.

Article 55 on Fundamental Rights, Duties and Guarantees stipulates that the law regulates relations of the State with religious institutions.


Prior to the modifications to the Constitution, the 4th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party was held in October of 1991 in Santiago de Cuba. The congress agreed to eliminate any interpretation of the constitutional statues that entails depriving a vanguard revolutionary of his/her right to aspire to be accepted as a member of the Communist Party due to his/her religious beliefs.

The situation that existed before was the result of conflicts that arose in the first years of the Revolution, particularly with the leadership of the Catholic Church, which was the main religion of the upper class affected by the measures of social justice adopted at the time. This resulted in the manipulation of the Christian faith and its subsequent opposition to the Revolution.
In those first years and for similar reasons, differences emerged with other churches as well, but to a lesser extent.

Religious institutions in Cuba keep their churches open, which are considered their property. They are completely free to designate their personnel at all levels, including their leadership. They organize and develop their formation and enjoy full freedom of movement inside the country and to travel abroad, including their participation in international events.

Other faiths of different origins enjoy equal respect on the island. These include, among others, Santería, Regla Conga or Palo Monte, Regla Arará and Sociedad Secreta Abakuá (Abakuá Secret Society), whose followers were persecuted during the Colonial period and the years prior to 1959. Today, they enjoy equal consideration, as do all the other religious faiths that have followers in Cuba.

According to a study conducted by the Socio-religious Studies Department (DESR), of the Center for Psychological and Sociological Research, a part of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, as of the 1990s, all religious beliefs present on the island registered increased numbers of followers at their churches and in religious activities. According to the experts, the increase was due to a number of reasons, including the effects of the economic crisis on the island that resulted from the collapse of the European socialist camp and Washington's stepped up economic blockade.
According to DESR, the situation is leveling off now


Since 1935, the Vatican and Cuba have maintained diplomatic relations at the highest level.
The late Pope John Paul II paid an historic pastoral visit to the island from January 21st through the 25th, 1998, invited by the Cuban government and Catholic Church. During his stay, the pope celebrated masses in the Cuban provinces of Villa Clara, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba and Havana.

John Paul II was received by Cuban President Fidel Castro at the Revolution Palace. Fidel Castro personally welcomed and saw the pope off at José Martí International Airport, and also attended the Head of the Catholic Church's mass here in Havana, as well as an activity in honor of John Paul II at the University of Havana's Main Hall, which houses the remains of Cuban Priest Félix Varela.
The foreign press covered every detail of the pope's visit.

This religious spectrum reflects why it is said that Cuba is a medley of religions, in which Catholicism, Protestantism and all faiths of African and other origins have their own space. Learning firsthand about this reality and meeting with followers on the island of the most diverse religious denominations and congregations, led the leader of the World Council of Churches, Samuel Kobia, to affirm that in fact: "Freedom of religion is a reality in Cuba."



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