There were reports of restrictions on religious freedom. Religious groups were no exception to the government’s generalized efforts to monitor all civic activities, and the Communist Party’s Office of Religious Affairs monitored and regulated almost every aspect of religious life, including the power to approve or deny religious visits, the construction or repair of religious buildings, the ability to conduct religious services in public, and the importation of religious literature. Except for two Catholic seminaries and several interfaith training centers throughout the island, religious schools were not permitted and military service was mandatory, with no legal exception for conscientious objectors.
A number of religious groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, have been waiting for years for a decision from the Ministry of Justice on their pending applications for official recognition. However, unrecognized religious groups reported they were able to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, and send representatives abroad.
The Office of Religious Affairs rarely granted religious organizations authorization to construct new buildings. Religious leaders noted, however, that the office frequently granted permission to repair or restore existing temples, allowing significant expansion of some structures and in some cases allowing essentially new buildings to be constructed on the foundations of the old. Numerous houses of worship were expanded or repaired.
In response to strict restrictions on the construction of new buildings, many religious organizations used private homes, known as “house churches,” for religious services. Estimates on the total number of house churches varied significantly, from just under 2,000 to as many as 10,000. The Office of Religious Affairs allowed this but required that recognized groups seek approval for each proposed location through a separate registration process. Religious groups indicated that while many applications were approved within two to three years from the date of the application, other applications received no response or were denied. Some religious groups were only able to register a small percentage of their “house churches.” In practice, most unregistered “house churches” operated with little or no interference from the government.
A license from the Office of Religious Affairs is necessary to import religious literature and other religious materials. The government owns nearly all printing equipment and supplies and tightly regulates printed materials, including religious literature. During the year the Catholic Church and some other churches were able to print periodicals and operate their own Web sites with little or no censorship.
The government did not permit religious groups to establish schools. Some religious groups operated afterschool programs and weekend retreats for primary and secondary students and higher education programs for university graduates. The Catholic Church held twice yearly teaching workshops for public school teachers. Although not sanctioned by the government, these programs operated without interference. Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders encouraged members to avoid university education, finding the requirements for university admission and course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs prohibiting political involvement. Jehovah’s Witnesses also found incompatible the expectation that students participate in political activities in support of the government and the requirement that they be available for assignment for government duties for three years after graduation.
While the law requires military service by all males and does not make any provision for conscientious objectors, since 2007 the government has unofficially allowed a period of civilian public service to substitute for military service for men who object on religious grounds. The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists stated that their members usually were permitted to participate in social service in lieu of military service. Most religious leaders reported they exercised self-censorship in what they preached and discussed during services. Many feared that direct or indirect criticism of the government could result in government reprisals, such as denials of permits from the Office of Religious Affairs or other measures that could stymie the growth of their organizations.
The government took measures to limit support to outspoken religious figures that it considered a challenge to its authority. On June 26, police arrested 23 people and detained them for five hours to prevent them from attending a Sunday prayer session in support of a Methodist minister who was removed from his post by his superiors, partly because of his outspoken criticism of the government. On October 19, police stopped Baptist pastor Mario Felix Lleonart, a vocal critic of the authorities in the province of Santa Clara, and detained him for 10 hours.
In February Pastor Omar Perez Ruiz (aka Omar Gude Perez), a leader of the Apostolic Reformation, an association of independent nondenominational churches, was released after serving almost three years of a six-year prison sentence for illicit economic activities and falsification of documents. Perez maintained his innocence and claimed his incarceration was due to his religious activities. Perez’s release was conditioned on his refraining from preaching and from leaving the city of Camaguey. Although Perez and his family were granted refugee status in the United States, they were unable to leave because the government did not grant them an exit permit.
As part of its campaign of repression of human rights activists, the government prevented many Catholics from attending religious services. Members of the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) group were routinely prevented from attending church, a practice that was particularly pronounced in the eastern provinces of Holguin and Santiago. The government prevented Adisnidia Cruz, mother of political prisoners Marcos and Antonio Lima-Cruz, from leaving her house in Holguin on Sundays to attend mass on dozens of occasions. In other instances the government harassed human rights activists immediately after religious services. On September 8, for example, members of the Damas de Blanco were arrested after attending mass in Santiago to celebrate the day of Cuba’s patron saint.