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Cuba

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life.  Observers said the government continued to use threats, international and domestic travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers, and restricted the rights of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez, Christian rights activist Mitzael Díaz Paseiro, his wife and fellow activist Ariadna Lopez Roque, and Patmos Institute regional coordinator Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso.  In March the government registered the New Apostolic Church, which does not have a connection with Apostolic churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement.  The ORA and MOJ, however, continued to use the law on associations to deny official registration to certain religious groups, such as a number of Apostolic churches, or failed to respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Many religious groups said the lack of registration impeded their ability to practice their religion.  A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Roman Catholic Church pressed for reforms in the draft constitution, including registration of religious groups, ownership of church property, and new church construction.  On October 24, the Cuban Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement calling for the constitution to strengthen protections for religious activities.  In September Protestant groups signed a petition opposing the removal of freedom of conscience in the draft constitution and sought the reinstatement of individual and collective rights to manifest one’s religion and beliefs in private and in public.  Human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported government harassment of religious leaders increased “significantly in parallel with” the churches’ outspokenness regarding the draft constitution.  According to CSW, some religious groups said the government increased its scrutiny of foreign religious workers’ visa applications and visits.  Some religious groups reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects.  According to the religious advocacy group EchoCuba and CSW, the government gave preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others.  During the year, the Sacred Heart of Jesus became the first Catholic church built since the country’s 1959 revolution.  It was the first of three Catholic parishes to be completed and the first Catholic church ever located in Sandino, a remote town in the country’s westernmost province.

The Community of Sant’Egidio again held an interfaith meeting – “Bridges of Peace” – in Havana on October 12-14 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace.  Leaders of different religious groups in the country and participants from 25 countries attended the meeting.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with government officials and raise concerns about unregistered churches’ inability to achieve legal registration and gain the official status it conveys.  The embassy met regularly with Catholic Church authorities, evangelical Protestants, and Jewish community representatives concerning the state of religious, economic, and political activities.  Embassy officials also met with representatives from Muslim, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and various Protestant communities.  Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.  The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country.  In social media and other public statements, the U.S. government continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups.  The Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.  Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population.  According to some observers, Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations.  The Assemblies of God (AG) reports approximately 150,000 members; the four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000.

Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists 50,000; Seventh-day Adventists more than 35,000; Anglicans 22,500; Presbyterians 25,000; Episcopalians 6,000; Quakers 1,000; Moravians 750; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 150 members.  During the year, the Episcopal Church of Cuba was readmitted as a diocese of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church after being separated in 1966, a possible explanation for the increase from 300 members in 2017.  There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International.  According to some Christian leaders, there is a marked growth of evangelical Protestant groups in the country.  The Jewish community estimates it has 1,200 members, of whom 1,000 reside in Havana.  According to the local Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims, of whom an estimated 1,500 are native born.  Other religious groups with small numbers of adherents include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Baha’is.

Many individuals, particularly those of African descent, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria.  These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “the state recognizes, respects, and guarantees freedom of conscience and religion” and “different beliefs and religions enjoy the same considerations under the law.”  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.  It declares the country is a secular state and provides for the separation of religious institutions and the state; however, the constitution also places the Communist Party above religious freedom as “the superior leading force of the society and the State.”  It also states that no freedom may be exercised contrary to the “objectives of the socialist state” and an article of the penal code criminalizes conscientious objection.

The government is subordinate to the Communist Party; the party’s organ, the ORA, works through the MOJ and the security services to control religious practice in the country.  The ORA regulates religious institutions and the practice of religion.  The law of associations requires all religious groups to apply to the MOJ for official registration.  The MOJ registers religious denominations as associations on a basis similar to how it officially registers civil society organizations.  The application process requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities, their proposed leadership, and their funding sources, among other requirements.  Ineligibilities for registration can include determinations by the MOJ that another group has identical or similar objectives, or the group’s activities could harm the common good.  If the MOJ grants official registration, the religious group must request permission from the ORA each time it wants to conduct activities, such as holding meetings in approved locations, publishing major decisions from meetings, receiving foreign visitors, importing religious literature, purchasing and operating motor vehicles, and constructing, repairing, or purchasing places of worship.  Groups failing to register face penalties ranging from fines to closure of their organizations.

The law regulates the registration of “house churches” (private residences used as places of worship).  According to CSW, the directive states two house churches of the same denomination may not exist within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of one another and detailed information – including the number of worshippers, dates and times of services, and the names and ages of all inhabitants of the house in which services are held – must be provided to authorities.  The law states that if authorization is granted, authorities will supervise the operation of meetings; they may suspend meetings in the house for a year or more if they find the requirements are not fulfilled.  If an individual registers a complaint against a church, the church may be closed permanently and members may be subject to imprisonment.  Foreigners must obtain permission before attending service in a house church; foreigners may not attend house churches in some regions.  Any violation will result in fines and closure of the house church.

The constitution states, “The rights of assembly, demonstration and association are exercised by workers, both manual and intellectual; peasants; women; students; and other sectors of the working people,” but it does not explicitly address religious association.  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, in practice, the government does not allow the unimpeded exercise of these rights.

Military service is mandatory for all men, and there are no legal provisions exempting conscientious objectors from service for religious reasons.

The country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008 but did not ratify it.  The government notes, “With respect to the scope and implementation of some of the provisions of this international instrument, Cuba will make such reservations or interpretative declarations as it may deem appropriate.”

Government Practices

Many religious groups said that despite constitutional provisions providing for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibiting discrimination based on religion, the government used threats, detentions, and other coercive tactics to restrict certain religious groups and leaders’ activities and applied the law in an arbitrary and capricious mannerAccording to a known human rights activist, Christian rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro, in prison since November 2017, staged a hunger strike in July and August, demanding his rights as a political prisoner and protesting repression and harassment of his family.  According to Radio Television Marti, on September 20, police arrested his wife, Ariadna Lopez Roque, also a political activist, in Santa Clara for demonstrating publicly against the government, calling for the government to respect freedom of conscience in the draft constitution, and burning a copy of the draft constitution.  Police detained her for five days.  On November 28, 2017, Diaz Paseiro was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for “pre-criminal dangerousness.”

According to CSW and other sources, on February 28, police arrested and detained Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso, a regional coordinator in Santa Clara for the Patmos Institute, a religious freedom advocacy organization.  According to CSW, the Provincial Unit for Investigations in Santa Clara held him without charge and released him on March 2.  CSW reported Rodriguez Alonso was returning home to Santa Clara from the town of Caibarien, where he met with human rights defenders to discuss how to respond to a series of religious freedom violations affecting loosely affiliated, unregistered Apostolic churches in the central and eastern areas of the country.  Rodriguez Alonzo said police officer Erik Francis Aquino Yera notified him the government would not allow him to travel to Geneva to denounce the lack of religious freedom in the country.  According to CSW, Reverend Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, a founder of the Patmos Institute, said Aquino Yera told members of Rodriguez’ family that the government considered the Patmos Institute a counterrevolutionary organization.

According to the CSW annual report, in late July national and local security agents threatened one pastor with eviction and prison because he had distributed pamphlets related to the government’s campaign to adopt a new constitution.  Authorities previously denied the same pastor permission to travel abroad.

Police continued their repeated physical assaults against members of the Ladies in White, a rights advocacy organization, on their way to Mass as reported by CSW and the news services Agency EFE, Marti Noticias, and Diario de Cuba.  The group’s members typically attend Mass and then gather to protest the government’s human rights abuses.  Throughout the year, Berta Soler Fernandez, the group’s leader, reported regular arrests and short detentions for Ladies in White members when they attempted to meet on Sundays.  The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) reported 224 arbitrary arrests of individuals in September, more than half of whom were women, mostly Ladies in White members.  According to CCDHRN, police briefly arrested Berta Soler Fernandez, the group’s leader, on September 30.  CCDHRN also stated police harassed and were physically aggressive toward individuals who were not detained.

According to the CSW annual report, prisoners, including political prisoners, reported authorities denied the right to pastoral visits and the right to meet with other prisoners for worship, prayer, and study.  CSW stated many also reported that authorities repeatedly confiscated Bibles and other religious literature, sometimes as punishment and other times for no apparent reason.  According to CSW, prison authorities blocked Eduardo Cardet, whom Amnesty International has identified as a “prisoner of conscience,” from receiving visits from a pastor and confiscated his Bible as punishment at different points throughout the year.

According to CSW, in February authorities physically blocked Pastor Barbaro Guevara from visiting Ariadna Lopez Roque at her home while she was on a hunger strike to protest how prison authorities were treating her husband Mitzael Diaz Paseiro.

In spite of the legal requirement for all men to perform military service, the authorities allowed conscientious objectors to perform alternative service.

Several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continued to await a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official registration, some dating as far back as 1994.  These groups reported they had to seek the authorities’ permission to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, make substantial renovations to their facilities, and send representatives abroad.  They also said state security continued to monitor their movements, telephone calls, visitors, and religious meetings.  According to CSW, Berean Baptist pastor Daniel Josue Perez Naranjo, based in the province of Las Tunas, has been waiting for the reregistration of his denomination since submitting the request in 1997.

According to representatives of several religious organizations that had unsuccessfully sought legal registration, the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the ORA and the MOJ to deny the registration of certain religious groups.  If the MOJ decided a group was duplicating the activities or objectives of another, it denied registration and advised Apostolic churches to join other registered churches.  In some cases, the MOJ delayed the request for registration or cited changing laws as a reason why a request had not been approved.  Toward the end of the year, MOJ officials notified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that under the draft constitution it should be able to legally register as a recognized religious entity, but as of the end of the year was unable to do so.

According to EchoCuba, the ORA approved some registration applications, but it took as many as two to three years from the date of the application.  Other applications received no response or were denied without explanation, while some groups continued to wait for up to 25 years for a response.  EchoCuba said Apostolic churches repeatedly had their attempts to register denied, forcing these churches to operate without legal status.

In October leaders of Apostolic churches including Bernardo de Quesada, Alain Toledanos, and Marco Antonio Perdomo, issued an official statement on behalf of nonregistered groups, which they said are “in practice discriminated against,” urging the government to establish a new statute formally defining and granting the right to, and laying out procedures for, legal registration of religious organizations by the MOJ.  The ORA and the MOJ did not announce any progress on revising the law on associations, announced in August 2017.

In March the New Apostolic Church, not affiliated with the many loosely affiliated Apostolic churches, registered with the MOJ.

According to CSW’s annual report, authorities continued to rely on two 2005 government resolutions to impose complicated and repressive restrictions on house churches.  Religious groups said the government applied these laws in an arbitrary manner and sometimes used them to target specific churches or religious groups.

According to members of Protestant denominations, some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of house churches in private homes; however, some unregistered house churches still could operate with little or no government interference.  According to an EchoCuba report, several religious leaders, particularly those from smaller, independent house churches or Santeria communities, expressed concern that the government was less tolerant of groups that relied on informal locations, including private residences and other private meeting spaces, to practice their beliefs.  They said the government monitored them, and, at times, prevented them from holding religious meetings in their spaces.  CSW said in other cases the government and Cuban Communist Party officials harassed leaders of house churches and owners of homes where house churches met.  Many house church leaders also reported frequent visits from state security agents or Cuban Communist Party officials.  Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued with their activities.

According to CSW, in March Bernardo de Quesada said government officials in Camaguey interrupted Bible studies held in private homes and attempted to intimidate the homeowners into stopping their religious activities.  De Quesada said government inspectors from the Physical Planning Department also attempted to enter his family’s property, where his church meets, while he was abroad.  According to CSW’s annual report, in August a government official visited several house churches associated with one pastor in central Cuba and pressured the homeowners to stop using their homes for religious activities.  The official threatened one owner, an elderly woman, with criminal charges if more than 10 persons met in her home at any one time.

According to the CSW annual report, in February two MOJ officials entered a prayer meeting at an unregistered house church and tried to intimidate approximately 50 persons in attendance, primarily teenagers and children.  At the same time, police stationed three cars outside the property.  The same week, security agents visited the property, demanded documents from the owners, and pressured them to stop hosting prayer meetings in their home.

According to an NGO, in May an official from the Provincial Directorate for Physical Planning entered a ranch to deliver a summons and investigate a church that meets on the property.  He threatened to demolish the building and prohibit the church from meeting within the property.  Reportedly, in October another pastor was fined and the official threatened to demolish his house for conducting religious services at home.

According to the CSW annual report, reports of harassment of religious leaders increased in parallel with churches’ outspokenness regarding the draft constitution.  A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Catholic Church continued to request that the government, particularly during the constitutional reform’s consultation process, pass reforms to facilitate the registration of religious groups, legalize ownership of church property by certain groups, and permit construction of new churches.  In September the AG, Methodist Church, Western and Eastern Baptist Conventions, Evangelical League, and other Pentecostal and evangelical Protestant churches (representing approximately 405,000 members in all) delivered a joint petition to the government entitled “Proposal of Modifications of Some Articles of the Draft of the Constitution.”  The petition called for the reinstatement of freedom of conscience and of individual and collective rights to manifest one’s religions and beliefs both in private and in public.

The AG reported the ORA opposed the AG collecting signatures in support of its campaign to oppose some aspects of the draft constitution and reported the government pressured AG leadership and supporters to abstain from signing the petition.  The AG stated authorities had warned it that “collecting signatures was forbidden.”  The Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCB) reported no government reaction to its letter on the draft constitution issued on October 24 that called on believers and nonbelievers to express their political opinions freely during the national consultation process on constitutional reform.

According to the CSW annual report, in February a religious leader who had organized a cross-denominational evangelical event fled the country after state security officials threatened to charge him with “acting against the independence or territorial integrity of the State,” which carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison under the penal code.

According to the CSW annual report, Christian leaders from all denominations said there was a scarcity of Bibles and other religious literature, primarily in rural areas.  Some religious leaders continued to report government obstacles preventing them from importing religious materials and donated goods, including bureaucratic challenges and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on computers and electronic devices.  In some cases, the government held up religious materials or blocked them altogether.  Several groups, however, said they continued to import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods.  The Catholic Church and several Protestant religious group representatives said they continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship.  The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.

By year’s end, the government had not granted the CCB’s public requests to allow the Catholic Church to reopen religious schools and have open access to broadcasting on television and radio.  The ORA continued to permit the CCB to host a monthly 20-minute radio broadcast, which allowed the council’s messages to be heard throughout the country.  No other churches had access to mass media, which are all state-owned.  Several religious leaders continued to protest the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.

According to the CSW annual report, the government continued to impose harsh restrictions on the construction of new church buildings.  All requests, even for minor building repairs, needed to be approved by the ORA, which awarded permits according to the inviting association’s perceived level of support for or cooperation with the government.  According to an EchoCuba report, the difficulty of obtaining approval to build new churches, together with the fact that it remained illegal to organize religious activities in buildings not registered for religious use, meant that many communities had no legal place to meet for church services.  According to the report, this situation particularly affected worshippers in more remote rural areas.  Members of the AG said the government prevented them from expanding their places of worship, including carrying out construction.  Instead, they stated, the government threatened to dismantle or expropriate some of their churches because they were holding illegal services.  The Berean Baptist Church, whose request for registration has been pending since 1997, has been unable to repair existing church buildings because as an unregistered group it could not request the necessary permits.

According to media sources, construction was completed of the Catholic Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Sandino, Pinar del Rio – the country’s first new Catholic church since 1959.  The church was one of three new Catholic churches the government authorized as part of its agreement with the Vatican.  St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida financed the construction of the church.

According to EchoCuba, the government continued to apply its system of rewarding churches that were obedient and sympathetic to “revolutionary values and ideals” and penalizing those that were not.  Similarly, the government continued to reward religious leaders who were cooperative with the government and threatened revocation of those rights for noncooperative religious leaders.  EchoCuba reported that, in exchange for their cooperation with the government, CCC members continued to receive benefits other nonmember churches did not always receive, including building permits, international donations of clothing and medicine, and exit visas for pastors to travel abroad.  EchoCuba said individual churches and denominations or religious groups also experienced different levels of consideration by the government depending on the leadership of those groups and their relationship with the government.

According to EchoCuba, the government continued to single out religious groups critical of the government, such as the unregistered Apostolic Movement, for particularly severe persecution, destroying their churches, confiscating properties, and banning travel of their pastors.  In contrast, the government allowed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also unregistered, to operate with little intervention because the Church continued to maintain a close relationship with the government and did not question the country’s laws.  Some religious leaders said the government continued to grant permits to buy properties for use as house churches, including in some cases when the titleholder to the property did not plan to live there.  Other religious groups said securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible.

According to the CSW annual report, a number of cases of arbitrary confiscation of church property remained unresolved – including land owned by the Western Baptist Convention the government confiscated illegally in 2012 and later handed over to two government companies.  The report said that many believed the act was retaliation for the refusal of the Convention to agree to various demands by the ORA to restructure its internal governance and to expel a number of pastors designated by the ORA.  One denomination reported that the Ministry of Housing would not produce the deeds to its buildings, which were required to proceed with the process of reclaiming property.  The ministry stated the deeds had all been lost.  The Methodist Church of Cuba said it continued to struggle to reclaim properties confiscated by the government, including a theatre adjacent to the Methodist church in Marianao, Havana.  According to the report, the Methodist Church submitted all the paperwork to recuperate the building and government officials told them that the Church’s case was valid; however, the government took no action during the year.

The government continued to prevent religious groups from establishing accredited schools but did not interfere with the efforts of some religious groups to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before- and after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs.  The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners.  Several Protestant communities continued to offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however, the government did not recognize these degrees.

According to the CSW Annual Report, some nonaccredited seminaries, especially those affiliated with registered non-CCC denominations, reported government interference in their activities, including frequent threats of eviction made by Housing Ministry officials and other government inspectors, which were often followed up with citations and burdensome fines.  They also said state security agents regularly posed as students in an attempt to infiltrate the seminaries.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs since their religion prohibited them from political involvement.

Some religious leaders said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas, citing a measure prohibiting churches and religious groups from using individuals’ bank accounts for their organizations and requiring individual accounts to be consolidated into one per denomination or organization.  Reportedly, it continued to be easier for larger, more organized churches to receive large donations, while smaller, less formal churches continued to face difficulties with banking procedures.

The CSW annual report stated that, according to a Cuban legal expert, immigration offices targeted religious travelers and their goods and informed airport-based intelligence services of incoming and outgoing travel.  CSW stated the government continued to block some religious leaders and activists from traveling, including preventing an Apostolic church leader from attending the Summit of the Americas in Peru in February.  According to the CSW annual report, in March and September the government blocked leaders from the Afro-Cuban Free Yoruba Association from traveling outside the country to attend a religious freedom event.  In December the state security sector chief reportedly summoned and interrogated a pastor regarding his upcoming trip abroad.  The pastor said he was allowed to travel, but upon his return was detained for four hours as security officials interrogated him about where he stayed and what contacts he made with churches abroad.

According to the CSW annual report, the ORA and immigration officials continued to withhold or deny visas for foreign religious visitors, depending on the relationship of the inviting organization with the government, and that the government increased its scrutiny of visiting foreign religious leaders.  Groups such as the Apostolic churches were not able to request religious visas because of their unregistered status.  According to CSW, the ORA withdrew visas for a U.S.-based pastor and his team to visit at the invitation of AG leadership.  According to AG leadership, ORA leaders said they revoked the visas because the U.S. pastor “has access to the media, can gather multitudes of individuals, and could influence public opinion.”  CSW also reported two cases involving the harassment of religious travelers by immigration officials in March.  In one case, immigration officials reportedly summoned a group of pastors from the United States for visiting an “illegal church.”  In another, Canadian missionaries were reportedly harassed and summoned by immigration officials and accused of distributing food and medication.  The group was also threatened for visiting an “illegal church.”  CSW stated some religious groups, mostly members of the CCC, reported few or no problems inviting foreign visitors or traveling abroad.

According to EchoCuba, government agencies regularly refused to recognize a change in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to a new church or parish.  A decree continued to place restrictions on internal movement and migration, making it difficult, if not impossible, for pastors and their families to register their new place of residence if they transferred to a church that lost its pastor due to death or retirement.  To engage with even the smallest of bureaucratic details, pastors refused the right to reregister needed to travel to wherever they were officially registered and submit the paperwork there.  Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups.  According to EchoCuba, the application of the decree to religious groups was likely part of the general pattern of government efforts to control their activities.  Some religious leaders said the decree was also used to block church leaders from travelling within the country to attend special events or meetings.  Church leaders associated with the Apostolic churches regularly reported they were prevented, sometimes through short-term detention, from travelling to attend church events or carry out ministry work.

Religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs and to share their religious beliefs.  International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana.  Caritas helped gather and distribute hurricane relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to all individuals regardless of religious belief.

Some religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before- and after-school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials.

According to the CSW annual report, local governments and Cuban Communist Party officials and police frequently encouraged communities to harass religious leaders and their congregations.  CSW stated authorities in Sancti Spiritus allowed loud parties to take place outside a church and pastor’s home and refused to stop participants from harassing church members and disrupting services.

In December a pastor reported the ORA threatened to demolish his church and that local communist officials visited some church members in their homes where they warned them not to participate in church activities.  Another pastor reported several instances of drones hovering outside his church after services.  He said he believed the surveillance was an effort to intimidate members of his church.

According to the CSW annual report, in February a church leader in the central part of the country was threatened after he put up posters in front of his church advertising a Christian concert he was organizing.  CSW stated the MOJ prevented the concert from taking place.

There were reports of cases of government harassment and intimidation of church leaders who called for changes to the proposed constitution.  In October a local Cuban Communist Party summoned several pastors.  When an ORA official entered the room, she shouted accusations about “mercenary pastors” who received funds from antigovernment organizations, calling this behavior an act of treason against the Cuban state.  One of the pastors said he believed the accusations were due to their involvement in the nationwide campaign calling for more religious freedom in the new constitution.  In another case that same month, a pastor reportedly hosted a meeting with other church leaders to discuss the changes to the constitution.  The pastor and his family received death threats from the government and were under surveillance.

In November ORA reportedly summoned a pastor and told him his trips outside the country had been monitored and there was concern about outside groups “manipulating” pastors in Cuba.  An ORA official told him he must support the draft constitution and instruct his congregation to vote “yes” on the referendum.  He said ORA threatened him with expulsion from his denomination, denial of permits for his church, and being transferred to another part of the country.  In December a pastor said buses serving churches involved in the constitutional debate were confiscated and the drivers detained and threatened with incarceration because of their relationship with these churches.

The annual Instituto Patmos report mentioned several cases of local police refusing to investigate or even file reports of threats and harassment against Jews.  According to Patmos, in December authorities expelled a Jewish group from a hospital during a post-circumcision ceremony.  They had to leave the hospital even though the children were still in need of medical care.  In another case, police interrupted a Jewish ceremony, entering the property with police dogs without a warrant and harassing members of the congregation.  Police officers said they were investigating a reported robbery, but no member of the congregation had reported a robbery.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” again held an interfaith meeting – “Bridges of Peace” – in Havana on October 12-14 to promote interreligious engagement, tolerance, and joint efforts towards peace.  Leaders of different religious groups in the country and participants from 25 countries attended the meeting, which focused on the importance of peaceful interfaith coexistence.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with ORA officials and raise concerns about the ability of unregistered churches to gain official status and practice their religion.  The ORA officials continued to state their interest in increased engagement with U.S. religious groups and U.S. government counterparts.  In social media and other public statements, the U.S. government continued to call upon the government to respect its citizens’ fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion and expression.

Embassy officials met with the head of the CCC and discussed concerns unregistered churches faced to gain official status.

Embassy officials continued to meet with a range of religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics, to discuss the principal issues of religious freedom and tolerance affecting each group, including freedom of assembly, church expansion, access to state-owned media, and their ability to open private religious schools.  Embassy engagement with smaller religious groups under pressure from the government was less frequent than in 2017 because of the embassy’s reduction in staff.

Embassy engagement included facilitating exchanges among visiting religious delegations and religious groups, including among visiting representatives of U.S. religious organizations from California, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and other states and local institutions.  The groups often discussed the challenges of daily life in the country, including obtaining government permission for certain activities, and successes such as closer bonds between Cuban and U.S. churches and an increase in two-way travel between Cuban and U.S. congregations.

Dominican Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief.  A concordat with the Holy See designates Roman Catholicism as the official state religion and extends to the Catholic Church special privileges not granted to other religious groups.  Privileges include funding for expenses such as administration and construction, visa exceptions, and exemptions for customs duties.  Some participants in an interfaith event in November said they did not approve of the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, the lack of explicit legal protection for churches beyond what the constitution provided, and the treatment of non-Catholic churches as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  In June the Ministry of Education signed agreements to incorporate 15 Christian schools, including non-Catholic Christian schools, into the national education system and provide them with teaching, administrative, and other support staff.  Some non-Catholic groups said they still paid customs duties and had to apply for refunds even though the law allows for exemptions.  Representatives of some non-Catholic groups stated that while the special privileges given to the Catholic Church through the concordat were unfair, these privileges did not hinder their ability to practice their religion in public and in private.

In February the School of Law at Santo Domingo’s Pontifical University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) cohosted an international conference called Religious Liberty as a Fundamental Right.  Participants emphasized the importance of laws and the need for the objective administration of justice by judges as a means to guarantee religious liberty.

In November an official from the Ministry of the Presidency participated in an interfaith gathering hosted by the Ambassador.  Representatives from 25 religious groups and faith-based organizations also attended the event, where issues discussed included religious freedom, the concordat, government financial support of churches, and legal protections for churches.  In October an embassy official met with the Interfaith Dialogue Table to discuss religious freedom and the organization’s plans for interfaith initiatives in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.3 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a 2017 Latinobarometer survey, the population is 48 percent Catholic, compared with 57 percent in a 2015 Latinobarometer survey and 64 percent in 1995.  The same survey indicates 21 percent of the population is evangelical Protestant, compared with 13 percent in the 2015 survey, and 21 percent have no declared religion or identify as atheist or agnostic, compared with 13 percent in 2015.  Other faiths include Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, and nonevangelical Protestants.  The Dominican Council of Evangelical Unity estimated in March that evangelical Protestants make up 30 percent of the population, with the number of Pentecostals growing the fastest.

There are approximately 2,500 to 3,000 Muslims throughout the country.  Most of the approximately 350 members of the Jewish community live in Santo Domingo, with a small community in Sosua.  There are small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is.

Most Haitian immigrants are Catholic.  According to the Dominican National Statistics Office, in 2017 there were 497,825 Haitian immigrants in the country.  An unknown number practice Voodou or other Afro-Caribbean beliefs such as Santeria.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of “conscience and worship, subject to public order and respect for social norms.”  A 1954 concordat with the Holy See designates Catholicism as the official state religion and extends special privileges to the Catholic Church not granted to other religious groups.  These privileges include the special protection of the state in the exercise of Catholic ministry, exemption of Catholic clergy from military service, permission to provide Catholic instruction in public orphanages, public funding to underwrite some Catholic Church expenses, and exemption from customs duties.

To request exemption from customs duties, non-Catholic religious groups must first register as NGOs with the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Finance.  Registration with the Attorney General’s Office, which applies to nonprofit organizations generally and is not specifically for religious groups, is a two-step process.  First, the organization must provide documentation of a fixed address and the names of seven elected officers, have a minimum of 25 members, and pay a nominal fee.  Second, the organization must draft and submit statutes and provide copies of government-issued identification documents for the board of directors.  After registering, religious groups may request customs duty exemption status from the Ministry of Finance.

The law provides for government recognition of marriages performed by religious groups registered with the Central Electoral Board.  The law requires churches to have legal status and presence in the country for at least five years, provide a membership list, and train clergy on how to perform marriages.  Churches are responsible for determining the legal qualification of couples, and they must record all marriages performed and make those lists available for government inspection.  Failure to comply with the regulations governing marriage can result in misdemeanor sanctions or fines.

The concordat grants the Catholic Church free access to prisons.  The government states it allows access to all faiths in prisons.  All faiths have the right to perform religious acts in prisons, in community or alone.

As part of the concordat with the Holy See, the law requires religious studies based on Catholic Church teachings in all public schools.  The concordat accords the Catholic Church the right to revise and approve textbooks used in public schools throughout the country.  The concordat also provides parents with the option of exempting their children from religious studies in public schools at both the elementary and secondary levels.  Private schools are exempt from the religious studies requirement; however, private schools run by religious groups may teach religious studies according to their beliefs.  A law mandating reading the Bible in public schools is not enforced.

The government imposes no immigration restrictions or quotas on religious workers.  Foreign missionaries may obtain a one-year multi-entry business visa through the Ministry of Foreign Relations after submitting a completed application form, original passport, two passport-size photographs, and a document offering proof as to the business activity from the institution or person in the country with whom the missionary is affiliated.  Foreign missionaries may renew the visa before the original one-year visa has expired.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Non-Catholic religious groups continued to report the government provided the Catholic Church significant financial support unavailable to them, including properties transferred to the Catholic Church and subsidies to the salaries of Catholic Church officials.

At the interfaith event in November, some of the 26 participants expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, the lack of explicit legal protection for churches beyond what the constitution provides, and the treatment of non-Catholic churches as NGOs rather than as religious organizations under the law.

A non-Catholic religious organization said the government still required it to pay customs duties on imported food and other items and then apply for a refund instead of receiving an exemption as allowed by law.  Religious groups continued to report difficulties when applying for and receiving customs duty refunds from the Ministry of Finance.

In June the Ministry of Education signed agreements to incorporate 15 Christian schools, including non-Catholic Christian schools, into the national education system and provide them with teaching, administrative, and other support staff.  The agreements allowed these schools to continue offering the same religious instruction as before the agreements.  The voluntary transfer of the schools to state administration was the result of a 2014 presidential promise to spend 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product on education.

In October a legislator introduced a resolution in the Congress of Deputies to enforce the law requiring the reading of the Bible in public schools, which would occur after raising the national flag and singing the national anthem.  One prominent legislator declared the resolution violated the constitution and the country’s status as a secular state, but many others declared strong support for it.  Legislative leaders sent the resolution to the education committee for further deliberation.

In December the minister of education told Catholic and Protestant religious leaders that he sought a “strategic alliance” between churches, schools, and the family as a means to reform the country’s education system.  He also invited church participation in improving the quality of education based on Christian values and principals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February the Pontifical University in Santo Domingo and the Church of Jesus Christ cohosted an international conference, Religious Liberty as a Fundamental Right.  Participants emphasized the importance of laws and judges in ensuring religious liberty.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In November an official from the Ministry of the Presidency and representatives from 26 religious groups and faith-based organizations participated in an interfaith gathering hosted by the Ambassador at the embassy for a discussion on religious freedom.  The representatives were leaders from the Catholic Church; Interfaith Dialogue Table; National Co-fraternal Council of Evangelical Churches; Center for the Investigation and Study of Religion; Christian Church Liaison Office of the Presidency; Social Service Executive of Dominican Churches; the Church of Jesus Christ; Jewish community; and Protestant community.  Issues discussed included the concordat, government financial support of churches, and the legal status of churches.  The Ambassador spoke of the importance of religious freedom to her personally, noting that in 1938 the Dominican Republic took in Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe.  She emphasized religious freedom is a fundamental value of the United States and one of the foundations of its success as a nation.  In October an embassy official met with the Interfaith Dialogue Table, which included representatives from Protestant and Catholic churches, to discuss religious liberty and the organization’s plans for future interfaith initiatives.

Haiti

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions.  The law establishes the conditions for recognition and practice of religious groups.  The government continued to provide the Roman Catholic Church with funds and privileges other religious groups did not receive.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religious Denominations (MFA) continued to state that it must provide such privileges to the Catholic Church in accordance with an 1860 international convention (concordat) between the government and the Holy See and not due to government preference for the Catholic Church.  Although Vodou was a registered religious group, the government again did not grant Vodou clergy legal certification to perform civil marriages or baptisms.  The MFA still did not approve long-standing requests from the Muslim community for religious registration.  The MFA stated the government did not recognize Islam as an official religion because Islamic practices, such as polygamy, belief in the death penalty, and the practice of adopting Islamic names after conversion were incompatible with the law.

According to media reports, on January 16, police arrested four men suspected of killing well known Catholic priest Joseph Simoly in December 2017.  While some individuals alleged Simoly was killed because of his political activism, others said there was no strong evidence that his death was anything but the result of a violent armed robbery.  Vodou community leaders said Vodou practitioners continued to experience social stigmatization for their beliefs and practices.  According to the leadership of the National Confederation of Haitian Vaudouisants, as in previous years, teachers and administrators in Catholic and Protestant schools at times openly rejected and condemned Vodou culture and customs as contrary to the teachings of the Bible.  Muslim leaders said their community, especially Muslim women wearing hijabs, continued to face social stigma and discrimination from the rest of society.  Muslims also said they faced discrimination when seeking public- and private-sector employment.

U.S. embassy officials met with the MFA to reinforce the importance of religious freedom, in particular the need for equal protection and equal legal rights for religious minority groups.  Embassy representatives also met with faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Catholic, Protestant, Vodou, and Muslim religious leaders to seek their views on religious freedom and tolerance and to emphasize the importance of respecting religious diversity and the rights of members of minority religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  The U.S. government estimates 55 percent of the population is Catholic, 29 percent Protestant (15 percent Baptist, 8 percent Pentecostal, 3 percent Adventist, 1.5 percent Methodist, and 0.7 percent other Protestant), 2.1 percent Voodoo (Vodou), 4.6 percent other, and 10 percent none.  Groups present in small numbers include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Baha’is, Rastafarians, Scientologists, and atheists.  According to societal leaders, an estimated 50 to 80 percent of the population practices some form of Vodou, often blended with elements of other religions, usually Christianity.  Muslim leaders estimate their community at 10,000.  There are fewer than 100 Jews.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions and establishes laws to regulate the registration and operation of religious groups.  The constitution protects against being compelled to belong to a religious group contrary to one’s beliefs.  The MFA is responsible for monitoring and administering laws relating to religious groups; within the MFA, the Bureau of Worship is responsible for registering churches and other religious buildings, clergy, and missionaries of various religious denominations.  By law, the licensing of pastors, priests, and other religious leaders is a government prerogative.  To obtain a license, the prospective religious leader must submit a dossier of 14 documents to the MFA, including a diploma of theology/religious studies, a certificate of good moral conduct, and a recommendation letter signed by a registered religious institution.  Once the MFA confirms the applicant’s eligibility for a license, the individual must take an oath before an official of the Ministry of Justice.

Although Catholicism has not been the official state religion since the enactment of the 1987 constitution, an 1860 concordat between the Holy See and the state according some preferential treatment to the Catholic Church remains in effect.  The concordat gives the Vatican power to approve and select a specific number of bishops in the country with government consent.  Under the concordat, the government provides a monthly stipend to Catholic priests.  The government does not provide stipends to Episcopalian or other clergy, although both Catholic and Episcopalian bishops have official license plates and carry diplomatic passports.  The government also allows the head of the Protestant Federation to use official license plates and carry a diplomatic passport.

By law, religious institutions must register with the MFA to operate in the country and receive government benefits; however, there is no penalty for operating without registration, and many religious groups continue to do so.  Registration affords religious groups standing in legal disputes, provides tax-exempt status, and extends civil recognition to documents such as marriage certificates and baptismal certificates issued by the group.  The government recognizes these certificates as legal documents only when prepared by government-licensed clergy.  Baptismal certificates are identifying documents with legal authority similar to birth certificates.  The government does not tax registered religious groups, and it exempts their imports from customs duties.  Requirements for registration include information on the qualifications of the group’s leader, a membership directory, and a list of the group’s social projects.  Registered religious groups must submit annual updates of their membership, projects, and leadership to the MFA.  Foreign missionaries must submit registration paperwork to operate privately funded clinics, schools, and orphanages.  Foreign religious groups do not have special visa requirements.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The MFA stated the 2003 government directive establishing Vodou as an official religion gives the right to the Vodou community to issue official documents, but the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou (KNVA) had not taken the necessary administrative steps to begin issuing such documents.  The MFA stated it was working with the Vodou community to develop a certification process for houngans (male Vodou leaders) and mambos (female Vodou leaders) in accordance with the Vodou belief system.  Certification permits Vodou leaders to validate marriages, baptisms, and other sacraments performed in accordance with Vodou traditions.  As of September there were 9,317 certified pastors, 718 certified priests, but only two certified houngans/mambos.  The KNVA said the MFA authorized 12 additional Vodou leaders to be officially certified; however, as of December their certification remained pending with the Port au Prince Prosecutor’s Office, which was responsible for swearing in the individuals, the final step for official certification.

The MFA again did not act on a request dating from the 1980s to register Muslims as a religious group.  The MFA stated the government did not recognize Islam as an official religion because Islamic practices such as polygamy, belief in the death penalty, and the practice of adopting Islamic names after conversion were incompatible with the law.  The government issued a specific registration number to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community that did not include the rest of the country’s Muslim population; however, it reiterated the registration number was not equivalent to official recognition.  Muslims said they continued to obtain civil marriage licenses as their only legal option.

The government continued to provide financial support for the maintenance of Catholic churches and some Catholic schools.  The MFA stated it was required to provide such privileges to the Catholic Church in accordance with a concordat signed between the government and the Holy See in 1860 and not due to a government preference for the Catholic Church.  The Protestant Federation said that while it was eligible, in accordance with a 2016 agreement, it did not regularly receive government financial support.  As of September the Protestant Federation said it had not received any government support.  The Protestant Federation said Protestant groups operated approximately 40 percent of the country’s universities and 60 percent of its hospitals.

In August the Office of Civilian Protection (OPC), the country’s human rights ombudsman, wrote to the Senate and Chamber of Deputies education commissions to express disagreement with the State University of Haiti’s practice of holding admissions exams for the 2018-19 academic year on weekends.  The OPC stated that several religious leaders said holding exams on Saturdays and Sundays was an infringement on religious liberty.  The OPC replied the university was a public institution and should adhere to the Monday-to-Friday schedule that all other public institutions maintained.

Officials within the Department of Corrections stated that limited institutional capacity and budgetary limitations continued to restrict their ability to provide meals in compliance with Islamic dietary restrictions.  Prisoners could request to see an imam; however, not all prisons were close enough to an Islamic institution that could provide such services.  Volunteers provided religious services in some prisons.

Although by law the government has exclusive authority to license pastors, the Protestant Federation advocated for shared authority to license pastors, stating it would create a more stringent licensing process and reduce the cases of unlicensed pastors and churches that can spread “dangerous messages” to their congregations.  The Protestant Federation cited the case of Makenson Dorillas, who instructed HIV-positive members of his congregation to consume a homemade remedy made from insects as an example of government laxity in licensing churches and pastors.  The MFA stated in September that Dorillas was not a licensed pastor.

Protestant and Catholic clergy continued to report largely positive working relationships with the government, citing good access to government officials.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to media reports, on January 16, police arrested four men suspected of killing well known Catholic priest Joseph Simoly in December 2017 in Port-Au-Prince.  While some individuals alleged Simoly was killed because of his political activism, others said there was no strong evidence that his death was anything but the result of a violent armed robbery.

Vodou leaders said Vodou practitioners continued to experience social stigmatization for their beliefs and practices.  They said members of the public often accused Vodou practitioners of using “occult powers” to commit violent crimes.  The KNVA cited as an example the frequent use by sick individuals of a combination of modern and traditional medicine, usually administered by a houngan or mambo.  If the person seeking treatment died, however, prosecutors often accused and arrested houngans or mambos for causing the death.  The KNVA said houngans and mambos were also subject to violent attacks and sometimes killed by community members who did not practice Vodou due to its associated social stigmas.  In December media reported a case in which a young LGBTI Vodou practitioner, Wilbens Maxime, provided treatment to a young woman who sought his assistance after she fell ill.  After the woman died, unidentified individuals accused the Vodou practitioner of causing the death with “mystical powers” and killed him.

According to KNVA leadership, as in previous years, teachers and administrators in Catholic and Protestant schools at times openly rejected and condemned Vodou culture and customs as contrary to the teachings of the Bible.

According to some Muslim leaders, members of the Muslim community experienced societal stigmatization and alienation, especially Muslim women wearing hijabs.  For example, Muslim women wearing the hijab had difficulty obtaining identification documents such as passports and identity cards because local authorities applied strict standards for face visibility in official documents.  Muslims also reportedly faced discrimination when seeking public and private sector employment.

The local chapter of Religions for Peace, an international interfaith organization whose members include representatives from the Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Churches as well as the Vodou community, continued to meet, focusing on promoting human rights, including religious freedom.  In October the chapter organized a roundtable to discuss religion and women’s rights in the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials met with government officials, including officials from the MFA, to emphasize the importance of fair and equal treatment for all religious groups, including religious minorities, and equal treatment in the government’s required registration process.

Embassy officials also met with faith-based NGOs and religious leaders in the Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Vodou communities to discuss religious freedom, societal stigmatization of some religious minorities, the importance of religious tolerance, and challenges some groups faced in obtaining registration of their group and clergy.

Jamaica

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom to worship and to change religion.  It prohibits discrimination based on belief.  A colonial-era law criminalizing the practices of Obeah and Myalism remains in effect, but it is not enforced.  In August the Supreme Court ruled that a five-year-old girl with dreadlocks could attend a Kingston primary school until the court could hear her case, overriding the school’s policy of preventing her attendance until she cut off her dreadlocks.  Religious rights advocates viewed the case as a significant development toward removing discrimination against Rastafarians seeking government services.  The government reviewed private religiously-based schools receiving public funding with the aim of ensuring the schools’ practices did not contravene government policies on individual rights.  The government mandated a nondenominational religious curriculum in schools and sponsored public events to promote interfaith engagement and respect for religious diversity.

Rastafarians stated that while prejudice against their religion continued, there was increasing acceptance of their practices and more societal respect.  They cited their continued progress in achieving higher positions in both the private and public sectors.  Seventh-day Adventists welcomed an April pronouncement from the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) that the PSOJ would criticize and possibly expel members of the organization who adopted policies limiting Seventh-day Adventists’ ability to gain employment because of their observance of a Saturday Sabbath.  Local media outlets continued to provide a forum for religious dialogue open to participants from all religious groups.  The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship, which includes representatives from Christian, Rastafarian, Hindu, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist organizations, continued to hold events to promote religious tolerance and diversity.

U.S. embassy officials met regularly with leaders of religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians.  In January the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith dialogue with leaders from 10 religious groups in recognition of Religious Freedom Day.  Participants discussed religious pluralism, tolerance, and the role of religion in addressing social issues.  Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance through official remarks, press releases, social media venues, and public engagements.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the most recent census in 2011, 26 percent of the population belongs to various branches of the Church of God; 12 percent is Seventh-day Adventist; 11 percent Pentecostal; 7 percent Baptist; 3 percent Anglican; 2 percent Roman Catholic; 2 percent United Church of Christ; 2 percent Methodist; 2 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses; 1 percent Moravian; and 1 percent Brethren.  Two percent maintain some other form of spiritual practice.  Other religious groups constitute 8 percent of the population, including approximately 29,000 Rastafarians, 5,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1,500 Muslims (Muslim groups estimate their numbers at 6,500), 1,800 Hindus, 500 Jews, and 270 Baha’is.  The census reports 21 percent have no religious affiliation.  There is no census data on adherents of Obeah and Myalism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion or belief either alone or in community with others, both in public and in private, and to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship.  It prohibits discrimination based on belief.  The constitution provides that rights and freedoms are protected to the extent they do not “prejudice the rights and freedoms of others.”

A law criminalizing Obeah and Myalism, religious practices with West African influences, remains in effect.  Potential punishment for practicing Obeah and Myalism includes imprisonment of up to 12 months.  Authorities have rarely enforced the law since the country became independent in 1962.

Registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups, but registered groups obtain incorporated group status and gain benefits, including the ability to hold land, to enter into legal disputes as an organization, and for clergy to visit members in prison.  Groups may seek incorporated status by applying to the Companies Office, an executive agency.  The Companies Office application comprises a standard form and a fee of 2,500 Jamaican dollars ($20).  NGOs register via the same form and fee structure to gain incorporated status.  Groups incorporated through this process must subsequently submit annual reports and financial statements to the Companies Office.

Alternatively groups may petition the parliament to be incorporated by parliamentary act.  Such groups receive similar benefits to those incorporating through the Companies Office, but parliament does not require annual reports or regulate the organizations it incorporates.

Regardless of incorporation status, religious groups seeking tax-exempt transactions must register as charities.  To be considered a charity, an organization must apply to the Cooperatives and Friendly Societies Department in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries.  Once registered, groups must submit their registration to the customs agency in the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service or apply to the tax administration to be considered for tax-free status.

The constitution states religious groups have the right to provide religious instruction to members of their communities.  Immunizations are mandatory for all children attending both public and private schools.  The law requires school administrators to adhere to several practices regarding the teaching of religion.  No individual may be required to receive religious instruction or participate in religious observances contrary to his or her beliefs.  The public school curriculum includes nondenominational religious education, which focuses on the historical role of religion in society and philosophical thought and includes group visits to Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu houses of worship.  Students may not opt out of religious education; however, religious devotion or practice during school hours is optional.

Churches operate a number of private schools.  Churches also run some public schools; they receive funding from the government and must abide by Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information rules.  Regulations mandate that religious schools receiving public funding must admit students of all faiths.  Religious schools are not subject to any special restrictions; they do not receive special treatment from the government based on their religious or denominational affiliation.  Most religious schools are affiliated with Catholic or Protestant churches; the Islamic Council of Jamaica runs two schools.

Foreign religious workers traveling to the country to perform religious work, as is the case with all foreign visitors, require an entry visa.  The entry visa may be obtained upon arrival or in advance, depending on the nationality of the traveler and the length of stay.  Religious workers, regardless of affiliation, who visit the country to work with a religious organization, require a work permit from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On August 28, the Supreme Court ordered that a five-year-old-child with dreadlocks be allowed to attend school until the court could hear the full constitutional challenge.  The girl was accepted to Kensington Primary, a public school in a suburb of Kingston, but administrators told her parents that she would have to cut her dreadlocks or find another school.  The case garnered much attention from various advocacy groups, all of which supported the girl.  Religious leaders said the case symbolically represented Rastafarianism because wearing dreadlocks was Rastafarian custom, and prohibiting dreadlocks was violating Rastafarians’ right to practice their religion.  Although the girl did not self-identify as Rastafarian, media outlets noted the case for its wider context of cultural identity and religious expression.  Legal practitioners stated that the court’s decision on this matter could have ramifications for Rastafarians seeking employment or government services as well.

Rastafarians continued to state their religious opposition to immunization, a requirement for children to register and attend school and part of the government’s stated campaign to reduce the resurgence of many communicable diseases in the country.  According to Rastafarian sources, however, most Rastafarian students could obtain a doctor’s note excusing them from the required immunizations.  Rastafarians also stated discrimination against Rastafarian children at schools was very rare and generally occurred only in rural areas.

The government undertook an analysis of potential discrimination in faith-affiliated private schools, attended by approximately 10 percent of students at the secondary and primary levels.  The overwhelming majority of these schools are Christian-based, and 35 percent received some form of public funding through direct subsidies, stipends for food, or discounted textbooks.

A member of the Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship said conflicts of interest arose when public policy and religious preferences did not align.  In one report a Christian-affiliated secondary school asked a student to withdraw after becoming pregnant.  The council member said civil society and senior educational officials then intervened on the stated grounds that the act was illegal.  The student was subsequently reinstated.

From October 8 through October 15, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission held its annual National Heritage Week, coordinating with the Committee for the Promotion of National Religious Services on a national interfaith thanksgiving service.  Similar events occurred throughout the country at the parish (sub-county) level during the year.

The government routinely conducted outreach to religious minorities, including Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians, as well as Baha’i, Buddhist, and Hindu groups, with the stated goal of fostering tolerance and acceptance.  Outreach included participating in the annual National Heritage Week to celebrate the country’s religious tolerance and diversity.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Rastafarians continued to report wider societal acceptance.  Many religious leaders stated that this was due to a different public perception of Rastafari; they said the country’s youth and middle-aged populations believed the Rastafarian religion had become more closely associated with the country’s development.  Religious leaders said there was more societal respect and appreciation for what they said was the historic role Rastafarians played in support of equal rights, removing discrimination from public spheres, anti-colonialism, and holistic living.  They also stated that while entrenched prejudices regarding Rastafarians’ preferred manner of dress and appearance continued to dissuade some employers from hiring them, Rastafarians continued to achieve higher positions in both the private and public sectors.  For example, at the Mona School of Business & Management in Kingston, Rastafarian and senior lecturer K’adamawe A.H. K’nife had supervised all curriculum development for the subject of entrepreneurship since 2010.  On October 15, National Heroes Day, the government honored Rastafarian author, producer, and filmmaker Barbara Blake-Hannah with the Order of Distinction in the Rank of Officer.  Rastafarians also led an increasing number of NGOs focused on environmental sustainability, civil society groups, and state agencies.

In April the PSOJ announced it would take action against those member companies that denied employment to Seventh-day Adventists on the basis of their observance of a Saturday Sabbath.  In announcing the policy, the PSOJ president said that the constitution did not permit discrimination based on religion, religious practices, or a day of rest.

Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups continued to state that society was tolerant of religious diversity, pointing to their continued involvement, along with other faiths, in the Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship.  The interfaith council included representatives from the Rastafari Innity Council Sanatan Dharma Mandir United Church, Unification Church, and National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is, United Congregation of Israelites, Islamic Council, and Soka Gakkai International.  Other organizations sometimes participated in council events.  The council continued to coordinate public educational events, including annual interfaith awareness days.  The Islamic Council of Jamaica said large groups of secondary school students continued to regularly visit the council’s 13 mosques as part of the government’s religious education syllabus.

Local media outlets continued to provide a forum for extensive coverage and open dialogue on religious matters through radio and television shows, as well as on opinion pages and letters to the editor in newspapers such as The Gleaner and The Jamaica Observer.  Discussion focused on the intersection of gay rights with Christianity, and religions’ role in the government.

In January the government refused the entry of a U.S. clergyman who had engaged in Holocaust denial and who had called for the killing of gay individuals and the removal of women from the workplace.  The denial came after a bishop from the Jamaica Evangelical Alliance stated that church groups had disavowed the clergyman and a petition with 36,500 signatures protesting the visit was sent to the Office the Prime Minister.  The official reason cited by the government for denying the visa was the clergyman’s statement that he did not intend to register and obtain a permit before beginning his public evangelizing.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials engaged senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade in August to discuss the status of religious freedom in the country.  In January the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith dialogue to recognize Religious Freedom Day with faith leaders from 10 diverse groups.  They discussed pluralism, tolerance, and religion’s role in addressing social issues.  Embassy officials also met regularly with leaders of religious groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Rastafarians, to discuss the importance of religious tolerance and social inclusion, citizen security concerns of religious groups, and the freedom of expression and assembly in relation to religious freedom.  In October embassy officials discussed the religious organizations’ roles in combating violence and the greater protection of the LGBTI community.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy representatives included references to the value of religious freedom and tolerance in speeches and other public engagements, press releases, and social media.

The Bahamas

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of religion is a fundamental right; individuals have the right to practice freely the religion of their choice or to practice no religion at all.  The law prohibits discrimination based on religion.  Practice of Obeah, an Afro-Caribbean belief system with some similarities to Voodoo, is illegal.  Violators may face a sentence of three months in prison; however, according to Royal Bahamas Police Force officials, this law is inconsistently enforced.  The government continued to include Christian prayer in all significant official events.  Rastafarians said the government discriminated against them because of their use of marijuana and dreadlocks.  The government met regularly with the Bahamas Christian Council (BCC), comprising religious leaders from a wide spectrum of Christian denominations – including Baptist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, Church of God, and Brethren – to discuss societal, political, and economic issues.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

U.S. embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, the president of the BCC, and representatives of the Muslim, Rastafarian, and Jewish communities to discuss issues of religious freedom.  Embassy representatives discussed with Jewish and Muslim groups these groups’ concerns regarding participation of their children in Christian activities offered in public schools.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 333,000 (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2010 census, more than 90 percent of the population professes a religion.  Of those, 70 percent is Protestant (includes Baptist 35 percent, Anglican 14 percent, Pentecostal 9 percent, Seventh-day Adventist 4 percent, Methodist 4 percent, Church of God 2 percent, and Brethren 2 percent).  Twelve percent is Roman Catholic.  Other Christians are 13 percent (includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek Orthodox Christians, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).  Five percent is listed as other, having no religion, or unspecified.  Other religious groups include Jews, Baha’is, Rastafarians, Muslims, Black Hebrew Israelites, Hindus, and Obeah, which a small number of citizens and some resident Haitians practice.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the right to worship and to practice one’s religion.  It forbids infringement on an individual’s freedom to choose or change one’s religion and prohibits discrimination based on belief.  Parliament may limit religious practices in the interest of defense, public safety, health, public order, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, but there were no such actions reported during the year.  The constitution refers to “an abiding respect for Christian values” in its preamble; however, there is no state-established religious body or official religion.

The practice of Obeah, an Afro-Caribbean belief system with some similarities to Voodoo, is illegal.  Those caught practicing it or attempting to intimidate, steal, inflict disease, or restore a person to health through the practice of Obeah may face a sentence of three months in prison.  According to Royal Bahamas Police Force officials, this law is inconsistently enforced.

The publication and sale of any book, writing, or representation deemed blasphemous is punishable by up to two years in prison; however, opinions on religious issues “expressed in good faith and in decent language” are not subject to prosecution under the law.  This law is traditionally unenforced.

The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must legally incorporate to purchase land.  There are no legal provisions to encourage or discourage the formation of religious communities, which have the same taxation requirements as profitmaking companies if they incorporate.  To incorporate, religious groups follow the regulations applicable to nonprofit entities, requiring the “undertaking” of the religious organization to be “without pecuniary gain” and to maintain a building for gathering.  In accordance with VAT legislation, religious organizations seeking VAT exemptions must register with the Ministry of Financial Services, Trade and Industry, and Immigration and apply on a case-by-case basis for exemptions.

The law prohibits marijuana use, including for religious rituals.

Religion is a recognized academic subject at government schools and is included in mandatory standardized achievement and certificate tests.  Religion classes in government-supported schools focus on the study of Christian philosophy, Biblical texts, and, to a lesser extent, comparative and non-Christian religions.  Religious groups may establish private schools.  The constitution states no one shall be compelled to participate in religious instruction or observances of a religion other than his or her own.  It allows students, or their guardians in the case of minors, to decline to participate in religious education and observance in private schools.  In government schools, students may not opt out of religious education, a core part of final examinations.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government continued to include Christian prayer in all significant official events.  It was common for government officials and members of parliament to quote religious teachings during speeches, and senior government officials in their official capacities occasionally addressed assemblies during formal religious services.

Rastafarians continued to be arrested for possessing small quantities of marijuana they used in ceremonial rituals and subjected to having their hair (locks) cut in prison.  Rastafarians stated officials required family members of Rastafarian prisoners to pay to receive a vegetarian diet while in prison.  Rastafarians also said the government discriminated against them in discussions on the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use.

In an effort to engage religious communities, which frequently comment on government social and economic policies, the government met regularly with the BCC to discuss societal, political, and economic issues.  Additionally, the government actively engaged with the Muslim community to develop opportunities for non-Muslim students to learn about Islam by having students visit the mosque to speak with local Muslim leaders.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy representatives met with government officials and the president of the BCC regularly to discuss religious freedom.

Embassy representatives increased their engagement with a wide variety of religious groups, including the BCC and smaller groups, which included the Jewish, Muslim, and Rastafarian communities.  Embassy representatives discussed with Jewish and Muslim groups these groups’ concerns regarding participation of their children in Christian activities offered in public schools.

Trinidad and Tobago

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious belief and practice, including worship.  It prohibits discrimination based on religion.  Laws prohibit actions that incite religious hatred and violence.  In September the High Court repealed the law that had criminalized same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults.  Some religious organizations said they supported the change in law on human rights grounds; others stated it infringed on their religious freedom.  The government’s national security policy continued to limit the number of long-term foreign missionaries to 35 per registered religious group at any given time.

The government-funded Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), representing diverse denominations within Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and the Baha’i Faith, again advocated for the importance of religious tolerance.  The IRO focused its efforts on marches, press conferences, and statements regarding tolerance for religious diversity and related issues.

U.S. embassy representatives met with senior government officials from the Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) Affairs (MFCA) to discuss the importance of the government’s equal protection of religion under the law.  In July embassy representatives met with the new IRO leadership to discuss interfaith cooperation and the value of religious tolerance.  Embassy representatives conducted outreach to religious group leaders, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Orisha, and Spiritual/Shouter Baptists, as part of its efforts to promote interfaith tolerance.  Embassy representatives delivered remarks underlining the value of religious plurality at a number of events.  In June the embassy hosted an iftar during which the Charge d’Affaires and the president of the largest Muslim association in the country delivered remarks highlighting the value of religious freedom and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2011 census, 26.5 percent of the population is Protestant, including 12 percent Pentecostal or evangelical Christian, 5.7 percent Anglican, 4.1 percent Seventh-day Adventist, 2.5 percent Presbyterian or Congregational, 1.2 percent Baptist, 0.7 percent Methodist, and 0.3 percent Moravian.  An additional 21.6 percent is Roman Catholic, 18.2 percent Hindu, 5 percent Muslim, and 1.5 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Traditional Caribbean religious groups with African roots include the Spiritual/Shouter Baptists, who represent 5.7 percent of the population, and the Orisha, who incorporate elements of West African spiritualism and Christianity, at 0.9 percent.  According to the census, 2.2 percent of the population has no religious affiliation, 11.1 percent does not state a religious affiliation, and 7.5 percent lists their affiliation as “other,” which includes several small Christian groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as Baha’is, Rastafarians, Buddhists, and Jews.

The religious composition of the two islands varies distinctly.  On Trinidad, the island with 95 percent of the country’s total population, those of African descent make up 32 percent of the population and are predominantly Christian.  A small, primarily Sunni Muslim community is concentrated in and around Port of Spain, along the east-west corridor of northern Trinidad, and in certain areas of central and south Trinidad.  Those of East Indian descent constitute 37 percent of the population, approximately half of whom are Hindu, in addition to Muslims, Presbyterians, and Catholics.  The population of Tobago is 85 percent of African descent and predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance, including worship.  It recognizes the existence of basic fundamental human rights and freedoms and prohibits discrimination based on religion.

The law prohibits acts of sedition and seditious intent, which includes engendering or promoting feelings of ill will towards, hostility to, or contempt for any class of inhabitants, including on the basis of religion.

A fine of up to 1,000 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (TT) ($150) may be levied for expressions of hatred directed specifically against a person’s religion, including any “riotous, violent, indecent, or disorderly behavior in any place of divine worship,” or attacks, ridicule, or vilification of another person’s religion in a manner likely to provoke a breach of the peace.  The country’s antiblasphemy law states, “Any person who is convicted of any act or an attempt to commit blasphemy, writing and publishing, or printing and publishing, any blasphemous libel… is liable to a fine and to imprisonment for two years”; however, the law is not enforced.

Judicial review, with the power of the court to modify or enforce orders, is available to those who claim to be victims of religious discrimination.  Claimants may also appeal a court’s decision.

To receive tax-exempt donations or gifts of land, perform marriages, or receive visas for foreign missionaries, religious groups must register with the government.  To register, groups must demonstrate they are nonprofit organizations, be in operation for at least one year, and submit a request for charitable status to the Ministry of Finance and the Economy.  The request must include a certificate or articles of incorporation, the constitution, and bylaws of the organization, and the most recently audited financial statements.  Religious groups have the same rights and obligations as most legal entities, regardless of their registration status.  They may, for example, own land and hire employees, and they are likewise liable for property taxes and government-mandated employee benefits.

Chaplains representing the different faiths present in the country may visit prisons to perform religious acts and minister to prisoners.

The government permits religious instruction in public schools, allocating time each week during which any religious group may provide an instructor at the parent’s request for an adherent in the school.  Attendance at these classes is voluntary, and the religious groups represented are diverse.  The law states public schools may not refuse admission to individuals based on religious beliefs, and no child is required to attend any religious observance or receive instruction in religious subjects as a condition of admission or continued attendance in a public school.  Immunization is required of all children entering school.  While parents may enroll their children in religiously affiliated private schools as an alternative to public education, the law does not permit homeschooling.  Private schools, also called “assisted schools,” receive a combination of government and private funding for their facilities.

The government subsidizes religiously affiliated public schools, including schools operated by Christian, Hindu, and Muslim groups.  The government allots primary school funding on a per-pupil basis, with the amount varying each year.  For secondary schools, the government allots funding based on budget requests submitted by each school.

A 2017 law raised the legal age of marriage to 18, amending previous marriage laws governing the marriage age for different religious groups.

Foreign missionaries must meet standard requirements for entry visas and must represent a registered religious group in the country.  Permits are valid for a maximum period of three years, at a cost of TT 500 ($74) per year.  Missionaries may not remain longer than three years per visit but may re-enter after a year’s absence.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On September 20, the High Court issued a ruling repealing the laws that had criminalized homosexual sex between consenting adults.  Religious organizations had mixed reactions to the ruling, with many fearing it infringed on their religious freedom, and a smaller number supporting the move on human rights grounds.  In response to the initial ruling in April, religious leaders, who stated they represented 90 percent of the country’s Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, asked the government in a news conference to uphold marriage to be defined as only occurring only between a man and a woman.  Convened by Catholic Archbishop of Port-of-Spain Jason Gordon, the religious leaders called on the government to amend the country’s Marriage Act to ensure that only a biological man and a biological woman could marry.  The leaders also called on the government not to amend the country’s equal opportunity act to accommodate LGBT individuals.  The act prohibits specific forms of discrimination but does not include gay men and lesbians as protected classes.  By year’s end, the government did not respond to their request.

Media reported in August that members of the governing political party, the People’s National Movement (PNM), performed a skit at a party event during which an actor removed a yellow sari from an actress to reveal a PNM T-shirt underneath.  Hindus stated that the skit insulted their religion.  Party officials initially downplayed the allegations; however, Prime Minister Keith Rowley later apologized to the Hindu community after he learned of the skit’s religious significance.

The government provided budgetary support for IRO activities, an interfaith coordinating committee representing approximately 25 religious groups, including numerous denominations within Christianity, as well as Islam, Hinduism, and the Orisha and Baha’i faiths.  Leaders from five religious groups – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Orisha, and Baha’i – continued to deliver invocations at government-sponsored events, including the opening of parliament and the annual court term.  According to the new IRO president, Knolly Clarke, a senior clergyman of the Anglican Church, the government maintained its previous levels of engagement and financing of religious organizations during the year.

Members of the government and officials from both political parties continued to participate in ceremonies and holidays of various religious groups and emphasized religious tolerance and harmony in their remarks.  Prime Minister Keith Rowley issued public messages for Easter, Ramadan, and Diwali that underscored religious freedom, diversity, and unity.  In his Eid al-Fitr message, he said, “Let us also adopt the sense of community and brotherhood that characterized the season of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid.”  At public invocations organized or run by the government, however, Christian references to God and to Christian beliefs, without equal recognition of other religions, were common – including during President Paula Mae Weeks’ swearing-in ceremony in the summer.

The government continued to limit the number of long-term foreign missionaries to 35 per registered religious group.  Missionaries in excess of the 35 individuals could remain in the country a maximum of 30 days.  IRO members continued to state that the government equitably applied the law; however, some international religious groups continued to state more than 35 missionaries could remain in the country if they affiliated with more than one registered group, including nonprofit groups and charities.  The IRO’s former president, a Hindu, said the law continued to constrain Hindus, who had few missionaries but wanted them to stay longer than the three-year legal limit.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February the government arrested individuals who allegedly planned to carry out a terror plot to destabilize Carnival celebrations.  Following their arrests, a local imam, Sheraz Ali, made a video and gave press interviews stating he and other members of the mosque had cooperated with police during the search and police officers had acted very professionally.  The video was in response to reports that police had found guns and ammunition and had entered the mosque with dogs and caused damage.  Ali made a public appeal to focus on the facts of the investigation and to stop spreading false news.  Some local imams said the negative social media commentary regarding the incident had slandered their communities.

Media sources reported that when a Muslim woman arrived for her first day of work at Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College, a school official told her to either to remove her hijab or leave.  She said the school later contacted her and apologized.

The IRO, with a founding mandate “to speak to the nation on matters of social, moral, and spiritual concern,” continued to advocate for matters of religious concern.  IRO efforts included marches and press conferences, as well as statements regarding religious tolerance and related issues.  In August the Universal Peace Federation for Trinidad and Tobago, together with members of the IRO, led a march for peace simultaneously with representatives of 120 nations who carried out their own peace walk in celebration of world peace.  In his first press release issued as the new IRO President, Knolly Clarke said, “We live in very trying times and the unity we share as religious heads of this culturally diverse society must impact on the example we set for harmony and togetherness in moving our country forward.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy representatives met with senior government officials from the MFCA to discuss the importance of the government’s equal protection of religion under the law.

The embassy hosted a roundtable with IRO members to discuss interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance among nonmember and member representatives of the IRO.

U.S. embassy officials engaged various religious groups to promote religious freedom and tolerance.  The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy representatives met with leaders of various religious organizations and visited a number of religious sites.

The embassy continued to engage actively with the local Muslim community.  In June the embassy hosted an iftar during which the Charge d’Affaires and the president of the largest Muslim association in the country delivered remarks highlighting the value of religious freedom and tolerance.  The Charge d’Affaires thanked the community for working with the embassy on messaging campaigns to counter violent extremism, urging Muslim leaders to speak out as the recognized voices of the community.  He pledged to continue outreach to the community.  The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials also attended an iftar at the Santa Cruz Mosque.  A senior embassy official spoke at the annual meeting of the National Muslim Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago; attended the funeral of a well-known member of the Muslim community; visited a mosque community in Tobago; and spoke at the annual event of the Madinah House, a shelter run by a board of Muslim women.

In July the embassy hosted a meeting with the newly appointed head of the IRO, Knolly Clarke, to discuss religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation among nonmember and member representatives of the IRO.

In October the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials visited the Swaha Divya Ashram in the central part of the island of Trinidad as part of the embassy’s outreach with religious minorities.

Embassy staff met regularly with Muslim religious and civil society leaders for discussions on topics including religious tolerance and countering violent extremism.  Embassy staff also continued working with religious groups, such as the National Muslim Women’s Organization and the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association, and delivered remarks on the importance of religious diversity at conventions of the Trinidad Muslim League and the Ahmadi Muslim Community.

The embassy utilized social media for outreach on the value of the freedom to worship according to one’s conscience.  Messages featured embassy-sponsored events and meetings in support of religious freedom and tolerance for religious diversity.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future