Crossing the Divide:
The Protestant Churches in Cuba

After many years of working behind the scenes, Protestant churches are emerging as a vital religious force in Cuba.

In the first years after the Cuban Revolution, there were serious Church-State tensions.  The Cuban Ecumenical Council came under great pressure in the 1960s.  During this time, many Christian fled Cuba.  Some pastors and priests who remained were harassed and others persecuted and sent to re-education camps.

Though tensions eased subsequently, there continued to be prejudice and discrimination against those practicing religion in Cuban society.  In the words of Cuban Methodist Bishop Joel Ajo, “For the first twenty-five years of the revolution, no one was interested in having the church play a role in society.”  Nonetheless, the churches continue to function.

Tensions over religion began to ease in the mid-1980s.  In 1991, the Cuban Communist Party changed its by-laws to permit believers to join the party, and the following year, the Cuban Constitution was changed.  No longer an official atheist state, hostile to religion, constitutional changes mad Cuba formally a secular country and the government expressed a commitment to religious freedom.

Since that change, religious tolerance has grown in Cuba.  Prejudice and discrimination against the faithful have declined.  Church membership has increased.

Certain member churches of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) and the Cuban Council of Churches have relations going back more than a century.  For more than 40 years both groups have worked closely together.  According to the NCC, both councils have looked for ways to facilitate reconciliation and understanding in the context of years of suspicion because of the embargo.

In 1991, a historic conference and meeting took place between representatives of the Canadian Council of Churches, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, the Latin American Council of Churches, the Caribbean Council of Churches, the Cuban Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the Evangelical Churches of Germany.  The theme of the conference was “The Church and the Option for a More Human and Just Society.”  At the end of the conference the 153 attendees had a four hour meeting with Fidel Castro which was broadcasted on Cuban television.  This meeting paved the way for better relations between the Protestant churches and the Cuban government.

One of the important outcomes of the 1991 meeting was the decision to send humanitarian assistance from U.S. churches to the people of Cuba through the Cuban Council of churches.  Over the past five years, the National Council of Churches has sent food, medicine, medical supplies, school supplies and other goods to Cuba totaling 325 tons with a declared value of more than $1 million.

The Papal visit to Cuba created an opportunity to raise the issue of the growth of religion in Cuba for people of all faith backgrounds.  On November 25, 1997, President Castro met for nine hours with the Cuban Council of Churches.  After the meeting Castro called for the prayers and efforts of Cuba’s Christian citizens to help solve its economic problems.  Misael Gorrin of the Cuban Council of Churches stated that Castro’s comment “was an invitation from him to continue the dialogue.”

An NCC-led Ecumenical Delegation that visited Cuba in December of 1997 said in a statement that it both “celebrate[s] the growth in the number of local congregations and in the increase in church membership and in the number of individuals participating in church activities” while calling for an end to the embargo which “we believe is morally wrong and politically ineffective.”

Today in Cuba, the Protestant churches are dedicated to the spiritual, pastoral, and social needs of the Cuban people, and are a force for greater tolerance and diversity in Cuban society.

 Washington Office on Latin America 400 C St., NE, Washington, DC 20002 tel: 202.544.8045 www.wola.org
Updated by NCC 8/2000

The NCC and Cuba