The country’s constitution, in effect since February 25, contains written provisions for religious freedom and prohibitions against discrimination based on religious grounds. According to human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and religious leaders, however, the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life. According to CSW, following the passage of the constitution, which was criticized by some religious groups, the government increased pressure on religious leaders, including through violence, detentions, and threats; restricting the right of prisoners to practice religion freely; and limiting or blocking international and domestic travel. Media and religious leaders said the government escalated its harassment and detention of members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez, Christian rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro, his wife and fellow activist Ariadna Lopez Roque, and Patmos Institute regional coordinator Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso. According to CSW, in July and November, authorities detained, without charges, Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre, a member of the Apostolic Movement and journalist. Many religious groups said their inability to obtain legal registration impeded the ability of adherents to practice their religion. The ORA and MOJ continued to deny official registration to certain groups, including to several Apostolic churches, or did not respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). According to CSW, many religious leaders practiced self-censorship because of government surveillance and infiltration of religious groups. In April media reported authorities arrested and sentenced homeschooling advocates Reverend Ramon Rigal and his wife Ayda Exposito for their refusal to send their children to government-run schools for religious reasons. In July the government prevented religious leaders from traveling to the United States to attend the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. According to CSW, on November 10, authorities prevented the president of the Eastern Baptist Convention from leaving the country. A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Roman Catholic Church continued to press for constitutional amendments, including easing registration of religious groups, ownership of church property, and new church construction.
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 September 22-23 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace. Approximately 800 participants from different religious groups in the country attended the meeting, which focused on the importance of peaceful interfaith coexistence.
U.S. embassy officials met briefly with Caridad Diego, the head of ORA, during a Mass in September celebrating Pope Francis’s elevation of Havana Archbishop Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez to the rank of cardinal; Diego declined to hold a follow-up meeting. Embassy officials also met regularly with a range of religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics concerning the state of religious freedom and political activities related to religious groups’ beliefs. In public statements and on social media, U.S. government officials, including the President and the Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion. Embassy officials remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating meetings between visiting civil society delegations and religious groups in the country.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Cuba on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.