U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2003 - Cuba

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on December 18, 2003, covers the period from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003.

The Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law; however, in law and in practice, the Government places restrictions on freedom of religion.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report; however, overall human rights conditions deteriorated sharply as indicated by the Government's arrest, summary trial, and jailing of 75 human rights activists and independent journalists in March and April, the biggest such crackdown in more than two decades. In general, unregistered religious groups continued to experience varying degrees of official interference, harassment, and repression. Some unregistered religious groups were subject to official censure, and also faced pressures from registered religious groups. The Government's policy of permitting apolitical religious activity to take place in government-approved sites remained unchanged; however, citizens worshipping in officially sanctioned churches often were subject to surveillance by state security forces, and the Government's efforts to maintain a strong degree of control over religion continued.

There were some tensions among religions, often because some religious groups perceived others to be too close to the Government. Tension within the Pentecostal movement continued to increase due to the establishment of house churches, which some churches believed was fractious.

The U.S. Government has raised issues of human rights, including religious discrimination and harassment, with government officials; however, the Government has dismissed these concerns. The U.S. Government continuously urges international pressure on the Government to cease its repressive practices. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana continues to maintain regular contact with various religious leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 68,888 square miles, and its population is approximately 11 million. There is no independent authoritative source on the size or composition of religious institutions and their membership. A 1953 survey indicated that 93 percent of the population identified themselves as Roman Catholic. During the period covered by this report, approximately 40 to 45 percent of the population generally were believed to identify themselves, at least nominally, with the Roman Catholic Church, according to information from the U.S.-based Puebla Institute. A significant number of citizens share or have participated in syncretistic Afro-Caribbean beliefs, such as Santeria. Some sources estimate that as much as 70 percent of the population practice Santeria or la regla lucumi, which have their roots in West African traditional religion.

The Baptists, represented in four different conventions, are possibly the largest Protestant denomination, followed closely by the Pentecostal churches, particularly the Assemblies of God. Twenty-two denominations, including Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, are members of the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC). Most CCC members are officially recognized by the State, though several, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, are not registered and are recognized only through their membership in the CCC. Another 31 officially recognized denominations, including Jehovah's Witnesses and the small Jewish community, do not belong to the CCC.

Although much of the population is nominally Roman Catholic, historically the country has been a largely secular society without an especially strong religious character. Catholic Church officials usually estimate that approximately 10 percent of baptized Catholics attend Mass regularly. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 500,000 persons. No figures on the number of Pentecostals are available, although the Seventh-day Adventists have stated that their membership numbers are approximately 30,000 persons. Prior to 2001, church attendance had grown in some denominations, and increased substantially at Catholic Church services following the Pope's visit in 1998. However, both Catholic and Protestant leaders believe that church attendance peaked during 1999 and early 2000.

There are approximately 320 Catholic priests, 40 permanent deacons, and 650 nuns in the country, less than half the total prior to 1960. Overall numbers of church officials are only slightly higher than before the Papal visit, since most new arrivals replaced retiring priests or those whose time of service in the country had ended.

Foreign missionary groups operate in the country through registered churches.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law; however, in law and in practice, the Government places restrictions on freedom of religion. The Constitution has provided for the separation of church and state since the early 20th century. In 1992 the Constitution was changed, and references to scientific materialism or atheism were removed. The Government does not favor any one particular religion or church; however, the Government appears to be most tolerant of those churches that maintain close relations to the State through the CCC.

The Government requires churches and other religious groups to register with the provincial Registry of Associations within the Ministry of Justice to obtain official recognition. Registration procedures require groups to identify where they will carry out their activities, demonstrate that they have the funding to carry out their activities, and obtain certification from the Registry of Associations that they are not duplicating the activities of a previously registered organization.

Although no new denominations were registered during the period covered by this report, the Government has tolerated some new religions on the island, such as the Baha'i Faith and a small congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). However, in practice the Government appears to have halted registration of new denominations.

Registration facilitates the ability of church officials to travel abroad and receive foreign visitors, entitles them to receive religious literature through the CCC, and allows them to meet in officially recognized places of worship. Conversely, members of unregistered religious groups must request exit permits on an individual basis, obtain religious materials through extra-official means, and risk the closure of their technically illegal meeting places.

Along with recognized churches, the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas, the Masons, human rights groups, and a number of nascent fraternal or professional organizations are the only associations outside the control or influence of the State, the Communist Party, and their mass organizations. The authorities continued to ignore other religious groups' applications for legal recognition, thereby subjecting members of such groups to potential charges of illegal association.

The Government's main interaction with religious denominations is through the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party. The Ministry of Interior still engages in efforts to control and monitor the country's religious institutions, including surveillance, infiltration, and harassment of religious professionals and laypersons. For example, in April the Government revealed that an agent of the Ministry of the Interior had contributed material to a Catholic publication under the guise of being a dissident.

The Government has relaxed restrictions on most officially recognized religious denominations. In 1999 the secretary general of the World Council of Churches officially visited the CCC, met with government officials, and presided in a religious ceremony in the First Presbyterian Church in Havana. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses, once considered "active religious enemies of the revolution," are allowed to proselytize quietly door-to-door and generally are not subject to overt government harassment, although there continued to be sporadic reports of harassment by local Communist Party and government officials. The Government has authorized small assemblies of Jehovah's Witnesses and one large gathering of as many as 7,000 persons, the opening of a central office in Havana, and publication of the group's magazine and other religious tracts; these activities continued during the period covered by this report.

Religious literature and materials must be imported through a registered religious group and can only be distributed to officially recognized religious groups. The CCC controls distribution of Bibles to its members and to other officially recognized denominations. The CCC reports that it has distributed 1.5 million Bibles since 1998. Bibles are distributed among denominations according to the number of members of each church.

Several Catholic diocese and lay groups publish magazines, including "Palabra Nueva" (New Word) of the Archdiocese of Havana and "Vitral" (Stained Glass Window) of the Diocese of Pinar del Rio. The publications are not registered with the Ministry of Culture, as required by law. The Government has not blocked printing or distribution of Catholic magazines; however, the State impedes access to printing equipment and has accused the editor of one magazine of subversive behavior for writing about sensitive political and social issues.

Since 1992 the Communist Party has admitted as members persons who openly declare their religious faith.

The Government allowed 9 foreign priests and 12 foreign nuns into the country to replace priests and nuns whose visas had expired; however, the applications of 60 priests and 130 nuns remained pending at the end of the reporting period.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Government led to strong confrontations with institutional churches in the early 1960s. During that period, many church leaders and religious professionals left the country, fearing persecution. More than 130 Catholic religious workers, including priests, were expelled, and a few served long prison terms. From 1965-67 the Government forced many priests, pastors, and others "who made religion a way of life" into forced labor camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPS), alongside homosexuals, vagrants, and others considered by the regime to be "social scum." The UMAP system ended in 1967. However, over the following 30 years, the Government and the Communist Party systematically discriminated against and marginalized persons who openly professed their faith by excluding them from certain jobs (such as teaching). Although the Government abandoned its official atheism in the early 1990s, most churches had been weakened seriously, and active participation in religious services fell drastically.

In early 2001, the Communist Party in Havana prepared a document criticizing inroads into society made by churches, particularly the Catholic Church, and suggested ways in which party officials could supercede the pastoral work of the church. This document stated that churches were asserting themselves into secular society by violating laws and regulations. The church activities criticized by the report included helping the sick and elderly.

In February 2003, the Archbishop of Havana issued a pastoral letter lamenting the disintegration of Cuban families and the extreme pressure to emigrate, and called upon the Government to shift from "policies of vengeance" to "policies of compassion." In March 2003, the Government invited a new Catholic order to establish a presence in Cuba without first coordinating with the Cuban Catholic Church; however, the Government failed to take any action on previous requests from the Cuban Catholic Church on behalf of 15 other orders. Many observers viewed the Government's invitation as retaliation for the Archbishop's critical statements in February.

In March 2003, the Cuban Ambassador to the Vatican asserted in an article in the Italian magazine "30 Giorni" that complete religious freedom existed in Cuba and urged the Cuban Catholic Church to register its publications with the Ministry of Culture. The Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops responded by sending an open letter to the editor of "30 Giorni" criticizing the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party for exerting strict control over the activities of the Catholic Church, especially State restrictions on religious education and Church access to the mass media. The Bishops' letter noted that the Catholic Church had declined to register its publications because registration would force it to concede control to the State regarding the subject matter, number of pages, frequency, and number of copies of Catholic Church publications.

The law allows for the construction of new churches once the required permits are obtained; however, the Government rarely has authorized construction permits, forcing many churches to seek permits to meet in private homes. Most registered religious groups are granted permission to hold services in private homes. Religious groups must obtain a permit to reconstruct and repair existing places of worship. The process of obtaining a permit and purchasing construction materials from government outlets is lengthy and expensive. In October 2002, the Government authorized the Greek Orthodox Church to build a church in Havana.

In March 2001, the Italian news agency ANSA reported that provincial leaders of the Communist Party requested the authorities to ensure that the charitable work and donations provided by religious groups be limited. The party officials apparently believed that churches, especially the Catholic Church, had gained community support, which threatened the continued rule of the Communist Party, through such activities. Following the publication of the article, Communist Party leaders in Havana reportedly apologized to the Catholic Church hierarchy.

Following April 2000 complaints by the Pentecostals regarding unauthorized foreign missionaries (see Section III), the CCC has continued to request that overseas member church organizations assist them in controlling foreign missionaries and prohibiting them from establishing unauthorized Pentecostal churches.

Religious officials are allowed to visit prisoners; however, prison officials sometimes refuse visits to certain political prisoners. In July 2002, prison officials denied religious visits to Enrique Garcia Morejon of the Christian Liberation Movement. For a religious visit to take place, the prisoner must submit a written request, and the prison director must grant approval. In punishment cells, prisoners were denied access to reading materials, including Bibles.

The Government continued to enforce 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 at other than the official – and exorbitant – retail prices. Additionally, the Government denies access to the Internet to some religious groups, including the Catholic Church.

Members of the armed forces do not attend religious services in their uniform, probably to avoid possible reprimand by superiors.

Education is secular and no religious educational institutions are allowed. Religious instruction in public schools is not permitted. In the past, students who professed a belief in religion were stigmatized by other students and teachers and were disciplined formally for wearing crucifixes and for bringing Bibles or other religious materials to school. In some cases in the past, these students were prohibited from attending institutions of higher learning or from studying specific fields; however, recently students who profess a belief in religion have been permitted to attend institutions of higher education.

Churches provide religious education classes to their members. Catholic Church officials report that the number of children attending catechism classes has continued to drop, mostly because of other scheduled activities, usually by local school authorities. There have been no reports of parents being restricted from teaching religion to their children.

Church officials have encountered cases of religious persons experiencing discrimination because of ignorance or personal prejudice by a local official. Religious persons do encounter employment problems in certain professions, such as education.

Religious groups are required to submit a request to the local ruling official of the Communist Party before being allowed to hold processions or events outside of religious buildings. In September 2002, local government authorities, for the fifth consecutive year, allowed the Catholic Church to hold an outdoor procession to mark the feast day of Our Lady of Charity in Havana. Prior to the event, security police ordered a number of human rights activists in Santiago not to attend the procession. On September 8, thousands of persons attended the various Masses held throughout the day in honor of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of the imprisoned. There were smaller, local processions throughout the provinces during the period covered by this report.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government monitors all religious groups, including registered and established institutions. The authorities also monitor church-run publications. Government harassment of private houses of worship continued, with evangelical denominations reporting evictions from houses used for those purposes. According to CCC officials, most of the private houses of worship closed were unregistered, making them technically illegal.

There were continued sporadic reports that local Communist Party and government officials harassed members of Jehovah's Witnesses; however, church officials reported that the number of such incidents decreased.

State security officials visited some priests and pastors prior to significant religious events, ostensibly to warn them that dissidents are trying to "use the Church"; however, some critics claimed that these visits were conducted in an effort to foster mistrust between the churches and human rights or pro-democracy activists. In May and June, State security agents warned the wives of several political prisoners that they would be arrested if they joined other wives of political prisoners for Mass at Havana's Santa Rita Catholic Church. Some of the wives continued to attend Mass together on a weekly basis, but said they feared Government retaliation against them or against their jailed husbands.

The Ministry of the Interior continued to engage in efforts to control and monitor religious activities, and to use surveillance, infiltration, and harassment against religious groups and religious professionals and lay persons.

In April 2000, a leading editor of one of the Catholic Church's magazines was criticized in a major editorial of the Communist Party's newspaper as a "known counter-revolutionary." In April 2003, the Government described the same Catholic Church magazine as "subversive literature" during the summary trials of 75 political prisoners arrested in March.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Most persons largely define themselves as Roman Catholic, although few attend Mass regularly. Catholicism has remained a major cultural reference since colonial times. After 40 years of the current regime, societal attitudes, including those toward religion, are conditioned heavily by the attitude of Fidel Castro and the ruling regime. The Government's decision to allow, and even provide some support for, the 1998 Papal visit greatly boosted the public perception that espousing religious faith was again acceptable. Fidel Castro further cemented this view, most importantly among Communist Party adherents and government officials, in nationally televised and broadcast speeches in which he claimed that the Cuban Revolution had "never" persecuted religious believers.

There were some tensions among religions, often because some religious groups perceived others to be too close to the Government. Tension within the Pentecostal movement continued to increase due to the establishment of house churches, which some churches believed was fractious, and resulted in Government action against Pentecostal worshippers. In addition, Pentecostal members of the CCC have complained that the preaching activities of unauthorized foreign missionaries has led some of the members of their churches to establish new denominations without obtaining the required permits (see Section II).

The CCC is the only ecumenical body that is recognized by the Government. It comprises many Protestant and Pentecostal denominations and engages in dialog with the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. The CCC and the Government generally have a mutually supportive relationship.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

U.S. Government policy toward Cuba is to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy and respect for human rights, including religious freedom, and the U.S. Government encourages the development of civil society, which includes the strengthening of religious institutions. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana maintains regular contact with the various religious leaders and communities in the country, and supports nongovernmental organization initiatives that aid religious groups. The U.S. Government regularly seeks to facilitate the issuance of licenses for travel by religious persons and for donated goods and materials that in some cases are provided to religious institutions. The U.S. Interests Section has raised issues of human rights, including religious discrimination and harassment, with government officials; however, the Government has dismissed these concerns. The Interests Section reports on cases of religious discrimination and harassment, and the U.S. Government continuously urges international pressure on the Government to cease its repressive practices.


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