Religious belief and practice continue to be tightly controlled in Cuba. Religious freedom conditions have been affected in part by the ongoing government crackdown on democracy and free speech activists, resulting in a generally deteriorating situation for human rights. The Commission continues to place Cuba on its Watch List, and will monitor conditions of freedom of religion or belief in Cuba to determine if they rise to a level warranting designation as a "country of particular concern," or CPC.

Cuba remains a hard-line Communist state, with a human rights record that, after deteriorating significantly in 2003, continued to be poor in 2004. Since seizing power in 1959, President Fidel Castro has maintained strong, centralized control of all facets of life in Cuba. While parliamentary, judicial, and executive institutions exist in name, all are under his control, and there is no legal or political avenue of dissent. Individuals who engage in dissent are harassed, jailed, and mistreated in prison. In February 2003, the Cuban government initiated an extensive crackdown on independent journalists, leaders of independent labor unions and opposition parties, and other democracy activists, including those supporting the Varela Project and the Christian Liberation Movement. Seventy-five human rights activists were arrested and sentenced in 2003. In the past year, the crackdowns have continued, with the imprisonment of an additional 22 human rights activists.

Since Castro came to power, the communist government has sought to suppress religious belief and practice because it was "counterrevolutionary." In the early years of the Castro regime, government and Communist Party officials forced priests, pastors, and other religious leaders into labor camps or exile and systematically discriminated against those who openly professed religious belief by excluding them from certain jobs or educational opportunities. In the past decade, however, the state instituted a limited rapprochement with religious believers. For example, the government abandoned its official policy of atheism in the early 1990s. Castro welcomed a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1998 and Castro visited Havana's Jewish Community Center for its Hanukah celebration that same year. In 2000, religious holidays were reinstated and members of Cuba's Jewish community were allowed to emigrate to Israel. The Pope's visit, in particular, sparked great hopes within the religious communities in Cuba, as well as among democratic activists, who viewed these steps as a softening of past government policies.

Yet, despite optimism that religious freedom would improve, violations have continued, as has the government's strong degree of control and generally hostile attitude toward religion. Although the Cuban government seeks to project the image that the right to religious freedom is respected, in fact, government authorities continue to view the influence of religion as a threat to the ideology of Castro's revolution. In early 2001, the Communist Party in Havana prepared a report that criticized inroads made by churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, into Cuban society, and asserted that the social work of the churches violated the law. Communist Party officials reportedly apologized to the Catholic Church hierarchy after the report was leaked. Nevertheless, Havana's Catholic Cardinal gave an interview in 2003 in which he asserted that "restrictions on religious freedom are returning" in Cuba, and that they represent a "return to the ideology of repression." After visiting Cuba in Spring 2004, a British religious advocacy organization reported a marked shift in government propaganda towards a communist orthodoxy, including an assault on religious freedom and related human rights.

The government's main interaction with, and control of, religious denominations is through the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party. The Cuban government also requires churches and other religious groups to register with the relevant provincial office of the Registry of Associations within the Ministry of Justice. Currently, there are approximately 50 state-recognized religious groups, primarily Christian denominations, half of which are members of the government-recognized Cuban Council of Churches. Reportedly, the government in recent years has not granted recognition to any denominations that are relatively new to the country, although it has tolerated the presence of some new groups, such as the Baha'is and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though they are not technically registered. In the last year, the Jehovah Witnesses report that they were allowed to open a central office in Havana, proselytize door-to-door, and publish their literature. According to the State Department's 2004 human rights report, the Cuban government is most tolerant of religious groups that maintain "close relations" with the state or those who are "generally supportive of government policies."

In recent years, the Cuban government has rarely permitted the construction of new places of worship. Thus, those religious groups that are not recognized, or those without adequate space, are forced to meet in private homes or other similar accommodations, commonly known as "house churches." Permission for such meetings may be granted from the state if the church is from one of the recognized or official faith groups, but permission is frequently denied to those the government deems to be "an independent religious movement" (i.e. not recognized or hostile to government policies). Members of house churches outside the recognized religious communities feel the brunt of this regulation; because they are not registered, their meetings are in violation of the law. If a complaint is made against a house church meeting, it can be broken up and the attendees imprisoned. In the past year, several Protestant groups reported evictions from houses used for these purposes. The Cuban government did permit the opening of a Russian Orthodox and a Greek Orthodox Church in 2004, which the official media declared to be evidence of the Cuban government's religious tolerance.

In the past year, both registered and unregistered religious groups continued to experience varying degrees of official interference, harassment, and repression. The State Department reports that house church pastors are routinely questioned and detained for several days by police and security forces. The State Department also reports that Cuban Interior Ministry officials engage in efforts to control and monitor the country's religious institutions, including through surveillance, infiltration, and harassment of religious clerics and laypersons. In January 2004, a Ministry of Interior official revealed in an interview that government infiltration of civil and religious organizations is widespread. In many churches, officials reportedly monitor sermons and sit behind the wives of political prisoners in order to intimidate them. The Conference of Catholic Bishops reports that monitoring of church services and harassment of parishioners has increased in the last year.

Other means by which the government restricts religion include: enforcement of a regulation that prevents any Cuban or joint enterprise, except those with specific authorization, from selling computers, facsimile machines, photocopiers, or other equipment to any church other than at the official – i.e. exorbitant – retail prices; an almost total state monopoly on printing presses; a prohibition on private religious schools; limitations on the entry of foreign religious workers; denial of Internet access to religious organizations; restrictions on making repairs to church buildings; and the denial of religious literature such as the Bible to persons in prison. Additionally, there is a requirement that religious groups receive permission from local Communist Party officials before being allowed to hold processions or events outside of religious buildings. Refusal of such permission is often based on the decision of individual government officials rather than the law. In the past year, La Pastora Catholic Church in Santa Clara was prohibited from distributing medicine and soap because these activities were not authorized and resulted in "illegal public gatherings." A procession to mark the feast day of the patron saint of Managua was denied in 2003 because the Catholic priest, a Spanish citizen, was deemed "politically unreliable." Cuban officials revoked his visa authorization, and he was forced to leave the country. In 2004, however, the town of Managua was permitted to hold its procession. Cuban authorities continue to deny or revoke visa authorization for religious workers whose activities are deemed too visible or whose opinions are viewed as contrary to government policy.

In the past year, Commission staff has met with Cuban human rights activists, regional experts, and religious leaders.


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