On the eve of the revolution, neither the Catholic Church nor the Protestant churches were a dominant force in Cuban Society. Nonetheless, in modern day trajectory, the Cuban government holds strict control of all church activities and repression of religious freedom. By law, discrimination against Christians is illegal, yet discrimination and harassment continues as growing churches are often perceived as a threat to regime stability. According to anthropologist Maria Elena Faguaga, people who follow Afro-Cuban religions are a majority in this Caribbean island nation. Within the population an estimated 5% belongs or attends protestant churches, including Baptist, Pentecostals, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh day Adventists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and the Quakers, among others. Other groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Bahia’s and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
A brief History 1902-1959
Prior to 1902, the American Bible Society colporteurs Alberto J. Diaz and Pedro Duarte establish the first protestant church on Cuban soil in 1883. During 1989-1902 the Spanish-American war begins, the era of mission Board sponsored work begins in Cuba after the American occupation begins. Various independent Fundamentalist missionaries arrive in Cuba in the year 1902.The years following this period are signified as the years of unification of missionaries and denominations working together to establish the gospel of God on the island. In 1940, representatives of all denominations united and began establishing a strong concern in providing a united front in evangelizing the Gospel in Cuba.
Post 1959 The Cuban revolution is now in its sixth decade. Born in the crucible of the Cold War, in 1959 the Cuban government only recognized churches that existed prior to 1959. However after 1959, the council of Evangelical Churches divided itself on political lines. On the other hand, the Castro government saw no room for God and the persecution of Christians began. In 1961, Cuba declares itself a socialist state, in exchange religion became obvious to the daily lives of Cubans. The body of the church had to choose between faith and a future. The 1960’s were a decade of persecution. All churches declined in size as many Christians left Cuba or left the faith. Then UMAP occurred, UMAP were military units mostly known as concentration camps designed for the social rebels. Christians, homosexuals, and anyone considered outside socialist norms were forced into these concentration camps, separated from their families, tortured and lived other forms of repression. The purpose of these camps was to alter their mental state and reform their beliefs to justify Castro’s revolution. In consequence the 1970’s and 1980’s were decades of discrimination and only a faithful few remained in the Church.It wasn’t until 1984, when Fidel Castro accompanied the Rev. Jesse Jackson to a Methodist Church in Havana, that religious freedom was first addressed. Jackson’s stay led to a series of reforms, including the creation of a cabinet-level position to address religious matters. The most publicized step of 1985 was Fidel Castro’s agreement to a series of interviews on religion with Brazilian priest Frei Betto.Cuba was rocked by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and in short order, the island nation became an international orphan. The economic consequences of the Soviet collapse were profound and long lasting; this period is called the Special Period. During the Special period, all churches and religions in Cuba including Santeria “African roots” began to see a growth in membership. The hardships of the economic state influence the Cuban population to turn into religious practices as salvation to their troubles. Most refer to this period as a period of revival that continues today. In 1992 the constitution abolished atheism as the state creed, declared the country to be a secular state, and provided for the separation of Church and State. By 1996, the worst of the special period was over. There were several reasons why the Cuban regime survived the economic and social cataclysm of the early 1990’s. One was the Cuban state was omnipresent, employing a mix of strategies to control, direct and disarm society. Opposition was also weak, and immigration served as a safety valve for nonconformists.
Pope John Paul II’s 1998 landmark visit to Cuba left evangelical pastors all over the island wondering aloud: What about us? Within a year the growing evangelical religious community made history of its own by holding 18 public services around the nation attended by thousands of people — including then-leader Fidel Castro. Even now more than a decade later the televised “Evangelical Celebration” is still considered a watershed moment for Cuban Protestants. But many others still struggle under a controlling regime to find the space to worship and question whether the pope’s visit resulted in any real progress. “Everyone went to that celebration waiting for religious sermons, and they got political sermons. Even Fidel Castro looked embarrassed,” said Carlos Lamelas, a Church of God pastor who fled to Texas last summer after butting heads with the government for years.
March 26-28, 2012
Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Cuba March 26-28 to mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the island’s patron saint, which was found floating in the bay of Nipe. The last pope’s visit was considered fundamental in the history of Cuba’s Catholic Church, capping years of modest reforms and paving the way for prisoner releases.
The preparations being made for Pope Benedict raise the issue for the estimated 800,000 Protestants, whether non-Catholic churches will benefit from his trip. Pastors and religious experts in Cuba say they hope the pope’s stop will provide the momentum to bring up long-standing issues troubling Protestants, such as the ability to build temples and have their religious rights spelled out in law.