Cuba’s churches grapple with a changing society, says council leader

June 8, 2011

GENEVA

As Cuba moves toward a post-Fidel Castro society, its churches are finding ways to “give a Christian witness with integrity” in a state-controlled country that places restrictions on areas of life such as free expression, said the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) after a visit to the Caribbean island.

Relations between religious groups and a government that was officially atheist at its revolutionary beginning in 1959 have warmed somewhat, said the Rev. Olav Fyske Tveit in an interview with ENInews at WCC headquarters in Geneva. Tveit and a WCC delegation visited Cuba May 25-30, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Cuban Council of Churches, visiting an ecumenical seminary and meeting with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Cuban president Raul Castro, who is 79, attended the worship service at the Episcopal cathedral that closed the anniversary celebration, Tveit said. “Raul said, ‘We need your blessings more than ever.’ It shows how far they have gone in recognizing the importance of the churches in society.” Raul’s brother Fidel, 84, ruled Cuba from 1959 until his retirement in 2008.

About 70 percent of the population of 11.4 million is Roman Catholic, according to the Catholic Church, with 6 percent Protestant. Cuba also has evangelical, Pentecostal and Orthodox churches and many followers of beliefs with African roots, such as Santeria.

While churches are in the delicate position of bearing witness within Cuban society, the WCC has advocated on behalf of relatives of the so-called Cuban Five, who are serving long prison sentences in the United States on spying charges. The WCC, during the Cuban visit, again called on the U.S. government to grant nonimmigrant visas on a humanitarian basis for wives who have been unable to visit their husbands since their imprisonment in 1998.

Church groups in the United States and Canada are “strong advocates of liberalization of U.S. policy” on family visits, travel and lifting the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, Tveit noted. 

Since health care and secular education are state-controlled, ordinary Cubans encounter churches “in their worship life and communal life related to that,” said Tveit. The seminary provides theological education, and churches also provide some Christian instruction and social services.

“I saw very clearly the connection between the church in Cuba and the global ecumenical movement. What is significant for them is support and the sense of a wide fellowship at times of restricted communication with the outside world. Also, the gifts they have been sharing, out of being church in this special situation, have given a lot to the ecumenical movement,” Tveit said.

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