In Cuba, religious freedom remains a dream
Posted on Friday, 09.07.12
In Cuba, religious freedom remains a dream
BY TEO A. BABUN JR.
Five nuns from Our Lady of the Good Shepherd's congregation returned to
Cuba on Aug. 28 with a small statue they had taken 50 years ago when
they left after Cuba's communist revolution. As recognition of the Cuban
government's "advances" toward freedom of religion, the Episcopal
Conference of Cuba noted that the religious act was "another sign of the
improved relations between the church and the government."
Interestingly, this past summer, during remarks on the State
Department's annual report on International Religious Freedom, Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton said, "Freedom of religion is not just about
religion." For Cubans, in particular, this is very true.
In Cuba, every aspect of life is controlled by the state. Freedoms in
general — and specifically freedom of religion — are not fully
available, and persecution of those who publicly profess a creed exists
today. Freedom of religion is a right that every human being should be
allowed to enjoy without restriction of any government or political entity.
Religion in Cuba must be presented in the context of its recent history,
in a spirit of truth and justice, putting aside our personal interests
or agendas — with no other objective except the truth.
When we talk about Cubans and religion, we must begin with what the
people in Cuba have experienced and are experiencing today.
From the 1960s until 1990, discrimination against Christians slowed the
growth of churches. Christians suffered under Cuban communism. In the
early years some pastors and priests were placed in "re-education camps"
a type of "concentration camp" where they were forced to perform manual
labor in agriculture in order to survive — and where many met their
death. These so-called camps were part of a rehabilitation program known
as "military units to help agricultural production" or "UMAP" by its
Christians and their families could not receive a good education or good
jobs. This pushed religious people to the lowest levels of society. Even
by the mid-1980s, Cuba's government declared Christians could still not
hold jobs where they would influence other people, especially children.
This means no Christian teachers, social workers, counselors, etc. The
result of these restrictions was that very few people wanted to be
associated with Christianity as it would lead to the loss of job or
status, as well as other discrimination.
One of the hardest realities of this strategy is that children are
shamed by their teachers and others to disown religious symbols and
renounce religious practices.
In his last newsletter published only a few weeks before his death,
Oswaldo Payá, a Catholic, wrote that it is "shameful that a child must
feel fear in her school because she attended a church service."
Religious leaders endure persecution and at times undergo threats from
government officials. Some face difficult decisions when their lives and
their families' lives are threatened. Due to fear, they comply with
restrictions or requests to cease certain religious activity, such as
outdoor concerts or baptism events.
Specific sectors of society, like the police and members of the military
and their families, are still discouraged from participating in
religious services. Lawyers, government workers and journalists are
often effectively barred, usually under threat of losing their jobs.
Although officially the government does not favor any one church or
religion, it appears to be more tolerant of those churches that maintain
close relations with the state, such as those that belong to the
"government friendly" Cuban Council of Churches.
It rewards them with special benefits (such as permits for outdoor
services and youth camps). This exclusive favoritism is the cause for
division with other religious institutions in the country.
The absence of religious freedom creates a climate of fear and lack of
trust, which weakens civil society and creates greater distance between
the citizens and those who govern them. And therefore makes it more
difficult to achieve any type of common national agenda.
Cubans should be free to promote the understanding of religious freedom
embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other
international covenants to their fellow citizens.
Article 18 of the declaration states: "Everyone has the right to freedom
of thought, conscience and religion; this includes freedom to change his
religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with
others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in
teaching, practice, worship and observance."
The Cuban government has it wrong. These are human rights which provide
dignity. It is the inherent patrimony of all human beings and a right of
all Cubans. This is not something "allowed" or "gifted" by any country.
Instead, it is the responsibility of governments' to protect.
In Cuba, the church should be free to define the mission it believes it
has received. Christians, Catholics and other believers must be free to
practice their faith in whatever manner they believe necessary.
Unfortunately this is not the case.
Teo A. Babun, Jr., is executive director of ECHOcuba, a Christian
organization committed to helping support the independent church in Cuba.