There were reports of restrictions on religious freedom. Religious groups were no exception to the government’s generalized effort to monitor and exercise control over all civic activities. 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, repair, or purchase of religious buildings; the purchase and operation of motor vehicles; the ability to conduct religious services in public, and the import of religious literature. Religious groups also reported it was easier during the year than previously to obtain government permission to maintain and repair existing places of worship and other buildings, although obtaining permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult.
With the exception of two Catholic seminaries and several interfaith training centers, religious schools were not permitted. Military service was mandatory, with no legal exception for conscientious objectors. However, the government continued an unofficial practice of allowing a period of civilian public service to substitute for military service for those who objected on religious grounds. The penalty for not fulfilling military service was imprisonment of three months to one year, although no cases were reported.
A number of religious groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, continued their years-long wait for a decision from the Ministry of Justice on pending applications for official recognition. These established but unrecognized religious groups reported the authorities permitted them to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, make renovations to their buildings, and send representatives abroad. Other groups, principally less well established independent evangelical Protestant churches, reported that the authorities harassed and fined parishioners for gathering to worship, and pastors were sometimes arrested or detained for attempting to preach in public.
The Office of Religious Affairs rarely granted religious groups authorization to construct new buildings or acquire new properties. 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. Many houses of worship were thus expanded or repaired.
In response to tight restrictions on constructing new buildings, many religious groups used private homes, known as “house churches,” for religious services. Estimates on the total number of house churches varied significantly, from fewer than 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 was necessary to import religious literature and other religious materials. The government owned nearly all printing equipment and supplies and tightly regulated printed materials, including religious literature. The Catholic Church and some other religious groups were able to print periodicals and other information and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The government continued to restrict access to the Internet, however, and permitted access to very few people. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies. As in the past, the Catholic Church received permission to broadcast Christmas and Easter messages on state-run radio stations. The Cuban Council of Churches, the government-recognized Protestant umbrella organization, was authorized to host a monthly twenty-minute-long radio broadcast. State-run television and radio stations mentioned a Council of Churches ceremony celebrating Reformation Day.
The Office of Religious Affairs is also responsible for issuing permits allowing religious groups to purchase and operate motor vehicles. On February 6 Reutilio Columbie, a pastor in a Pentecostal church in Holguin, was found unconscious on the street after an apparent assault. At the time of the assault, Columbie was on his way to lodge a protest of the government’s confiscation of a church vehicle. The only thing stolen from him was the paperwork showing the church’s title to the vehicle. Columbie suffered brain damage due to attack. The government did not make public the results, if any, of an investigation into the incident.
The government did not permit religious groups to establish schools. Some religious groups operated after-school programs, weekend retreats, and workshops for primary and secondary students and higher education programs for university graduates. Some churches reported increased participation in religious instruction for children because government schools no longer scheduled competing activities on Saturdays or Sundays. A cultural center in Havana opened in 2011 by the Catholic Church continued to offer several academic and business administration courses. The Jewish Community Center and some Protestant churches also offered courses on lay subjects, such as computers and foreign languages. Although not specifically allowed 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 the 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.
The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists stated that their members generally were permitted to participate in social service in lieu of military service.
The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists stated that mistreatment and job discrimination, which had been particularly harsh in the past, were now rare and that their members were usually exempted from political activities at school. Seventh-day Adventist leaders stated that their state-employed members were usually excused from working on Saturdays.
Both the Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches reported that they were able to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in most provinces. There were reports, however, that prison authorities did not inform inmates of their right to religious assistance, delayed months before responding to requests, and limited visits to a maximum of two or three times per year.
Religious groups reported they were able to engage in community service programs, including providing assistance to the elderly, after-school tutoring for children, clean water, and health clinics. International faith-based charitable operations, such as Caritas and the Salvation Army, had local offices in Havana. Religious groups provided humanitarian assistance to families affected by Hurricane Sandy, although some reported that they were not permitted to distribute aid directly to families in need but were obligated to turn it over to government officials for distribution. Several pastors in the Granma region reported the authorities detained them for attempting to distribute aid to hurricane victims and confiscated the aid that they were attempting to distribute.
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 for outspoken religious figures it considered a challenge to its authority. On October 30, Pastor Omar Gude Perez (also known as Omar Perez Ruiz), a leader of the Apostolic Reformation, an association of independent nondenominational churches, released an open letter protesting the government’s refusal to allow him to work as a pastor or grant him the exit visa necessary to leave the country. The letter also protested his incarceration for three years on false charges. The pastor contended that he was singled out for punishment in retaliation for outspoken sermons and repeated denunciation of religious freedom violations suffered by the churches in his network. Gude Perez and his family were granted asylum to the U.S. in 2011, but were unable to leave the country because the government would not issue the pastor an exit visa.
The government prevented human rights activist worshipers from attending religious services. Members of the peaceful protest group Ladies in White were routinely prevented from attending church, a practice that was particularly pronounced in the eastern provinces of Holguin and Santiago. Before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, many members of the peaceful political opposition were arrested or were prevented from leaving their homes to participate with the Pope in celebrating mass. The CCDHRN registered over one thousand detentions during the month of March in the lead-up to the papal visit. While most of these detentions were short-term, Lady in White Sonia Garro Alfonso and her husband, political activist Ramon Alejandro Munoz Gonzalez, were arrested March 18 and remained jailed without charge at year’s end.
On July 22, prominent Catholic lay activist and leading opposition figure Oswaldo Paya Sardinas died in an automobile crash, alongside young leader and Catholic lay activist Harold Cepero Escalante. Although Paya’s family called for an independent investigation of the crash and of Paya and Cepero’s cause of death, none was made. Hundreds of mourners attended Paya’s funeral over which Cardinal Jaime Ortega presided. Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram to be read at the mass. After the funeral, state security forces detained thirty-two mourners for periods ranging from six to twenty-four hours.