The government prevented some human rights activists from attending religious services. The police routinely took measures, including detentions, to prevent members of the peaceful protest group Ladies in White from attending Catholic Mass. This practice was particularly pronounced in the provinces of Matanzas, Holguin, Villa Clara, and Santiago. The authorities also harassed Ladies in White, sometimes violently, as they exited church services to prevent them from engaging in peaceful protests. On July 14, members of a government organized mob pushed and hit Lady in White Sonia Alvarez Campillo, breaking her wrist, as she left Mass in the province of Matanzas.
The government took measures to limit support for outspoken religious figures. Authorities finally permitted Pastor Omar Gude Perez (also known as Omar Perez Ruiz), a leader of the Apostolic Reformation Movement, an association of independent nondenominational churches, to leave the country on January 31 after he publicly protested the government’s refusal to allow him to work as a pastor or to issue him an exit visa. Gude and his family were granted asylum in the United States in 2011, but were unable to leave the country because the government would not issue the pastor an exit visa. The pastor stated that he was incarcerated for nearly three years on false charges. He added that he was singled out for punishment in retaliation for his outspoken sermons and repeated denunciation of religious freedom violations experienced by churches in the Apostolic Reformation Movement.
Prior to his departure, Gude Perez took steps to transfer title of his residence to another pastor in the Apostolic Reformation community, Yiorvis Bravo Denis. In September, however, the provincial court in Camaguey determined that the transfer was not valid. On October 5, the government tried to evict Bravo and his family. Police cordoned off the residence, and the government organized a mob to surround the residence and chant pro-government slogans for four days. Bravo stated that he and his family were singled out for eviction because they were holding religious meetings, including Bible study classes, in the residence.
A number of religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continued their years-long wait for a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official recognition. These groups reported the authorities permitted them to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, make minor renovations to their buildings, and send representatives abroad, but their members were exposed to harassment by state security, including pervasive monitoring of their movements, telephone calls, visitors, and religious meetings.
Some religious groups, principally independent evangelical Protestant churches, reported that government authorities harassed and fined parishioners for gathering to worship. On November 12, national television carried a program that called evangelical churches “subversive organizations.” Panelists on the program stated that evangelical churches appealed to youth and families, were led by dynamic pastors, and were successful in attracting new members. The program concluded that evangelical churches are “part of a grand plan by the U.S. government to undermine the Cuban government.”
Other evangelical groups reported that pastors were sometimes arrested or detained for attempting to preach in public. On June 1, police detained eight church leaders from Pastores por el Cambio (Pastors for Change), an association of independent evangelical churches, for up to six hours after proselytizing in an open-air local farmer’s market in Bayamo, Granma province. Police officers told the church leaders that if the church members continued to evangelize in public, they would be incarcerated again. Church officials stated that until June they were able to preach regularly in the market without incident. Following the June detentions, members of Pastores por el Cambio continued to proselytize in public every weekend. Police officers intermittently detained them for up to several hours and levied fines.
The ORA 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 buildings, allowing significant expansion of some structures and in some cases allowing essentially new buildings to be constructed on the foundations of the old. Religious groups reported an increased ability during the year to obtain this permission, although securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult.
In response to tight restrictions on constructing new buildings, many religious groups used private homes, known as “house churches,” for religious services. Estimates of the total number of house churches varied significantly, from fewer than 2,000 to as many as 10,000. The ORA allowed the use of homes for this purpose but required that recognized groups seek approval for each proposed location through a separate registration process. Religious groups indicated that while authorities approved many applications 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 house churches. In practice, most unregistered house churches operated with little or no interference from the government.
The ORA continued to require a license 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 Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies and was again able to broadcast Christmas and Easter messages on state-run radio stations. The ORA continued to authorize the Cuban Council of Churches, the government recognized Protestant umbrella organization, to host a monthly twenty-minute-long radio broadcast.
Although the government expanded internet access incrementally during the year, religious leaders reported that continued limited access to e-mail and the internet reduced their opportunity to connect with colleagues and counterparts both abroad and within Cuba.
With the exception of two Catholic seminaries and several interfaith training centers, the government did not permit religious groups to establish accredited schools. Some religious groups operated after-school programs, weekend retreats, and workshops for primary and secondary students as well as higher education programs. The Catholic Church offered coursework that led to a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree and several Protestant communities offered, via distance learning, bachelor’s degrees or master’s degrees in Theology and related subjects. Although not specifically allowed or accredited by the government, these programs operated without interference.
Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders encouraged members to avoid university education in Cuba, finding the requirements for university admission and the course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs prohibiting political involvement. Jehovah’s Witnesses also stated that they 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. By avoiding university institutions and corresponding political activities, Jehovah’s Witnesses were ineligible for professional careers; their participation in the workforce was therefore limited to the technical trades and manual labor.
Religious groups continued to report that 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 maintained local offices in Havana. Religious groups continued to provide humanitarian assistance to families affected by Hurricane Sandy, which struck eastern Cuba in 2012. Some organizations, however, 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.
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 ORA or other measures that could limit the growth of their religious groups.
In spite of the legal requirement for military service, 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. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists leaders stated that their members generally were permitted to participate in social service in lieu of military service.
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.