A Distorted Reality
FREEDOM OF RELIGION IN CUBA
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
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
"FREEDOM OF RELIGION: A CUBAN REALITY"
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."
PRIESTS, MINISTERS, BABALAOS AND SPIRITUALISTS
Cuba is a medley of religions. The Christian faith was
brought to the island by Spanish colonialists at the beginning of the
In the course of five centuries, religious life has been
enriched tremendously with new religious faiths and institutions of
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.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN CUBA
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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).
FAITHS OF AFRICAN ORIGIN
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"
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
OTHER RELIGIOUS FAITHS
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
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
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.
CONSTITUTION AND RELIGION
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
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
THE COMMUNIST PARTY AND BELIEVERS
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
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
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
VISIT OF POPE JOHN PAUL II
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
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."