As U.S. President Barack Obama makes an historic visit to Cuba, he opens the possibility of increased ties between the two countries in commerce, agriculture and education. But Cuba’s communist government continues to impose restrictions on religious activity in Cuba.
According to the persecution watch group Voice of the Martyrs, Cuban religious leaders are reluctant to say anything that could be construed as opposing the government in the fear that they will face repercussions such as a denial of permits from the Office of Religious Affairs. Evangelical Christians have reported harassment, fines and arrests for conducting public gatherings.
To accommodate the growth of Christianity and overcome the country’s restrictions on the building of new church facilities, there are an undefined number of new house churches being added to those already established, likely numbering in the thousands.
“There is freedom of worship now, yes,” the Rev. Roberto Betancourt, the priest at Our Lady of Regla, one of Cuba’s landmark churches, told The Guardian in 2015. “But that’s not the same as freedom of religion.”
No other country in the Americas is so restrictive when it comes to religious practice. The Cuban government doesn’t allow the church to run its own schools or broadcasts. Public acts of worship or proselytizing are prohibited. And it is very interesting that Father Betancourt makes the same distinction that many of us in the religious freedom community have pointed out as a flaw in the policies of the Obama Administration – “freedom of worship, but not freedom of religion.”
Cuba has experienced a religious revival since the downfall of Soviet communism. Many Cubans are clearly responding with a curiosity about religion, and Christianity in particular.
This is a moment in which President Obama should demand to speak to the dissidents and the persecuted in Cuba the way that President Ronald Reagan showed his solidarity with Christians and other dissidents in the Soviet Union and President George Bush showed his solidarity with the Church in China.