Church leaders and government officials in Cuba have said that religious reforms introduced during the past two decades have improved religious policies in Cuba over earlier restrictive practices in place since 1959.

“Religious groups in Cuba have been receiving fair treatments from the authorities in the country,” said the Rev. Noel Fernando, a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) and its working group on freedom of religion and human rights, which met recently in Havana, Cuba.

Fernando, also a Baptist pastor, said that “religious groups have benefited from the reforms now taking place in Cuba as the country has opened up for wider international relations.”

The CCIA team of experts analyzing freedom of religion and rights of religious minorities was in Havana from June 28-July 3. They worked on drafting a statement for the WCC’s upcoming Busan assembly and reviewed CCIA’s study report on freedom of religion and rights of religious minorities.

“The question of religious freedom has been openly discussed now in Cuba, which was not possible some years ago,” said the Rev. Ofelia Ortega Suárez, from the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba, president of the WCC representing Latin America and the Caribbean region and member of Cuba’s parliament.

Ortega shared that she was able to raise certain questions on religious freedom in a meeting where government officials were also present, and they were considered favorably. The Communist Party of Cuba and government have not been expressing any aversion to complaints or grievances by religious groups, she said.

“Government and party officials are welcoming the ideas of religious leaders, and also they seek opinions from time to time on various matters,” Ortega added.

Caridad Diego Bella, chief of the Religious Affairs department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (A Los Asuntos Religiosos CC-PCC) met with the WCC delegates. She shared that according to the new policies of the government and the party, Cuban citizens have full freedom to practice their faith.

In 1991 the Cuban Communist Party lifted its prohibition against religious believers seeking membership, and a year later amended the constitution to affirm that “the state recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of religion. In the Republic of Cuba, religious institutions are separate from the state. The different beliefs and religions enjoy the same consideration” (Article 8).

In 1997 following the request of Pope John Paul II during a pastoral visit to the island and subsequent consultations by the government and party with Cuban religious leaders, Christmas was officially recognized as a holiday for the first time since 1969. The following year it was permanently reinstated as a national holiday.

According to Diego Bella, one of the major religious challenges facing Cuba these days is the spread of certain overseas groups through local churches, which has caused divisiveness within the traditional churches and tensions between the population and the authorities.

The chief of the Religious Affairs department also added that Cuban authorities and communist party officials are in close contact and collaboration with various religious groups in the country. These groups include Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches, Jewish and Buddhist and Islamic communities, as well as Afro-Cuban religions.

“The developments in the socio-political and economic realms in recent years have been contributing to reforms in the areas of religious freedom in the country, which is a motivating factor for churches as well as other religions in the country,” said Mathews George Chunakara, director of the CCIA.

However the church leaders in Cuba have expressed their concern about the continuing economic sanctions imposed on the country, added Chunakara.