The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers said the government continued to use threats, international and domestic travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers, and restricted the rights of prisoners to practice religion freely. Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez, Christian rights activist Mitzael Díaz Paseiro, his wife and fellow activist Ariadna Lopez Roque, and Patmos Institute regional coordinator Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso. In March the government registered the New Apostolic Church, which does not have a connection with Apostolic churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement. The ORA and MOJ, however, continued to use the law on associations to deny official registration to certain religious groups, such as a number of Apostolic churches, or failed to respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many religious groups said the lack of registration impeded their ability to practice their religion. A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Roman Catholic Church pressed for reforms in the draft constitution, including registration of religious groups, ownership of church property, and new church construction. On October 24, the Cuban Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement calling for the constitution to strengthen protections for religious activities. In September Protestant groups signed a petition opposing the removal of freedom of conscience in the draft constitution and sought the reinstatement of individual and collective rights to manifest one’s religion and beliefs in private and in public. Human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported government harassment of religious leaders increased “significantly in parallel with” the churches’ outspokenness regarding the draft constitution. According to CSW, some religious groups said the government increased its scrutiny of foreign religious workers’ visa applications and visits. Some religious groups reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects. According to the religious advocacy group EchoCuba and CSW, the government gave preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others. During the year, the Sacred Heart of Jesus became the first Catholic church built since the country’s 1959 revolution. It was the first of three Catholic parishes to be completed and the first Catholic church ever located in Sandino, a remote town in the country’s westernmost province.
The Community of Sant’Egidio again held an interfaith meeting – “Bridges of Peace” – in Havana on October 12-14 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace. Leaders of different religious groups in the country and participants from 25 countries attended the meeting.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with government officials and raise concerns about unregistered churches’ inability to achieve legal registration and gain the official status it conveys. The embassy met regularly with Catholic Church authorities, evangelical Protestants, and Jewish community representatives concerning the state of religious, economic, and political activities. Embassy officials also met with representatives from Muslim, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and various Protestant communities. Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In social media and other public statements, the U.S. government continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.1 million (July 2018 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. According to some observers, Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God (AG) reports approximately 150,000 members; the four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000.
Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists 50,000; Seventh-day Adventists more than 35,000; Anglicans 22,500; Presbyterians 25,000; Episcopalians 6,000; Quakers 1,000; Moravians 750; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 150 members. During the year, the Episcopal Church of Cuba was readmitted as a diocese of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church after being separated in 1966, a possible explanation for the increase from 300 members in 2017. There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International. According to some Christian leaders, there is a marked growth of evangelical Protestant groups in the country. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,200 members, of whom 1,000 reside in Havana. According to the local Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims, of whom an estimated 1,500 are native born. Other religious groups with small numbers of adherents include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Baha’is.
Many individuals, particularly those of African descent, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, “the state recognizes, respects, and guarantees freedom of conscience and religion” and “different beliefs and religions enjoy the same considerations under the law.” The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It declares the country is a secular state and provides for the separation of religious institutions and the state; however, the constitution also places the Communist Party above religious freedom as “the superior leading force of the society and the State.” It also states that no freedom may be exercised contrary to the “objectives of the socialist state” and an article of the penal code criminalizes conscientious objection.
The government is subordinate to the Communist Party; the party’s organ, the ORA, works through the MOJ and the security services to control religious practice in the country. The ORA regulates religious institutions and the practice of religion. The law of associations requires all religious groups to apply to the MOJ for official registration. The MOJ registers religious denominations as associations on a basis similar to how it officially registers civil society organizations. The application process requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities, their proposed leadership, and their funding sources, among other requirements. Ineligibilities for registration can include determinations by the MOJ that another group has identical or similar objectives, or the group’s activities could harm the common good. If the MOJ grants official registration, the religious group must request permission from the ORA each time it wants to conduct activities, such as holding meetings in approved locations, publishing major decisions from meetings, receiving foreign visitors, importing religious literature, purchasing and operating motor vehicles, and constructing, repairing, or purchasing places of worship. Groups failing to register face penalties ranging from fines to closure of their organizations.
The law regulates the registration of “house churches” (private residences used as places of worship). According to CSW, the directive states two house churches of the same denomination may not exist within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of one another and detailed information – including the number of worshippers, dates and times of services, and the names and ages of all inhabitants of the house in which services are held – must be provided to authorities. The law states that if authorization is granted, authorities will supervise the operation of meetings; they may suspend meetings in the house for a year or more if they find the requirements are not fulfilled. If an individual registers a complaint against a church, the church may be closed permanently and members may be subject to imprisonment. Foreigners must obtain permission before attending service in a house church; foreigners may not attend house churches in some regions. Any violation will result in fines and closure of the house church.
The constitution states, “The rights of assembly, demonstration and association are exercised by workers, both manual and intellectual; peasants; women; students; and other sectors of the working people,” but it does not explicitly address religious association. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, in practice, the government does not allow the unimpeded exercise of these rights.
Military service is mandatory for all men, and there are no legal provisions exempting conscientious objectors from service for religious reasons.
The country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008 but did not ratify it. The government notes, “With respect to the scope and implementation of some of the provisions of this international instrument, Cuba will make such reservations or interpretative declarations as it may deem appropriate.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” again held an interfaith meeting – “Bridges of Peace” – in Havana on October 12-14 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace. Leaders of different religious groups in the country and participants from 25 countries attended the meeting, which focused on the importance of peaceful interfaith coexistence.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with ORA officials and raise concerns about the ability of unregistered churches to gain official status and practice their religion. The ORA officials continued to state their interest in increased engagement with U.S. religious groups and U.S. government counterparts. In social media and other public statements, the U.S. government continued to call upon the government to respect its citizens’ fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion and expression.
Embassy officials met with the head of the CCC and discussed concerns unregistered churches faced to gain official status.
Embassy officials continued to meet with a range of religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics, to discuss the principal issues of religious freedom and tolerance affecting each group, including freedom of assembly, church expansion, access to state-owned media, and their ability to open private religious schools. Embassy engagement with smaller religious groups under pressure from the government was less frequent than in 2017 because of the embassy’s reduction in staff.
Embassy engagement included facilitating exchanges among visiting religious delegations and religious groups, including among visiting representatives of U.S. religious organizations from California, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and other states and local institutions. The groups often discussed the challenges of daily life in the country, including obtaining government permission for certain activities, and successes such as closer bonds between Cuban and U.S. churches and an increase in two-way travel between Cuban and U.S. congregations.