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The Pope and religious freedom in Cuba

When the Pope visits Cuba next week, the world’s eyes will undoubtedly turn to the island nation, and questions about the current state of religious freedom will be raised. I wrote about the role of the church in Cuba last October, but it seems time to revisit the topic.

According to Mary Anastasia O’Grady with the Wall Street Journal, Christian human rights activists in Cuba are losing hope that the Pope has any intention of meeting with them, listening to them, or making any substantial pleas on their behalf. Instead, it seems Benedict XVI’s public plans are limited to three outdoor masses, meetings with Raul Castro and Cuban Catholic Church leaders (separately, of course), and a possible meeting with Fidel Castro. Fidel, interestingly enough, is rumored to be considering a return to the faith, though it’s hard to know for sure what to make of that.

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen slow and incremental easing of economic restrictions by Raul Castro, which has created some new opportunities, but has hardly been enough to turn the country around. It seems that there has been increased religious freedom as well, though according to the U.S. State Department, “in law and in practice, the government places restrictions on freedom of religion.” But according to Geoff Thale at the Washington Office on Latin America, a respected human rights and democracy think tank, Cuba’s religious communities are varied and thriving, despite state-imposed obstacles:

Conventional wisdom dictates that freedom of religion in Cuba is extremely limited; that churches are barely tolerated; that the relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party have improved little since the 1960s; that mutual hostility is the dominant motif in relations between churches and the state; that the Catholic Church in Cuba is eager to embrace the role that the Catholic Church played in Poland in the 1980s, serving as the spiritual voice for a nascent political opposition; and that the Catholic Church is not just the largest religious community in Cuba, but the only significant one. All of these assumptions are unfounded.

Thale has written an in-depth three part series exploring religion in Cuba. The first part of the series takes a look at religious communities in Cuba today, including the prominent Catholic Church, as well as Afro-Cuban traditional religions like Santeria, rapidly growing Protestant churches, ranging from traditional mainline denominations to evangelicals and Pentecostals, and other smaller religious groups.

In the second part, Thale writes about the country’s church-state relations and how they have evolved over the years, from the early days of the revolution, through the Cold War years, all the way to today. Over the last two decades, Thale writes, significant improvements in church-state relations have been made.

Finally, in the third part of the series, Thale says that while the state indeed still imposes restrictions, “most religious groups have been able to function within the government’s limitations.” Increasingly these groups have been taking a pro-active role in pushing the country to change. The Catholic Church has been able to publicly advocate on a number of social and political issues, and has been instrumental in the freeing of political prisoners.

I’d highly recommend reading all three parts of the series to better understand both the remarkable achievements of our Cuban brothers and sisters, as well as the challenges they continue to face. Yes, it’s right to continue to push Cuba to ease restrictions on religion, but we’d be wrong to espouse the narrative that the church in Cuba is simply being thwarted at every turn.

[Image credit: Fox News Latino]

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  1. Pingback: Weekend Video: Cuba and the Night | Tim Høiland

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