Thursday, May 23, 2013

More religious freedoms in Cuba?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

More religious freedoms in Cuba?
The State Department says repression of faith remains a problem in Cuba,
while a CBF Florida official has seen major improvements.
By Jeff Brumley

While the U.S. government reports that religious rights remain greatly
restricted in Cuba, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship official said his
own experience is that freedoms are improving on the Communist island.

Ray Johnson, coordinator of CBF Florida, said the American restrictions
on its own citizens' ability to travel to and from Cuba, plus other
limitations, often are more difficult to deal with than the Cuban

Since 1961, the United States has maintained economic and diplomatic
embargos on Cuba. Since 1982, the nation has been on the U.S. list of
state sponsors of terrorism.

"I can say that I have more trouble sometimes dealing with stateside
regulations than dealing with Cuban regulations" in getting assistance
to Cuba, Johnson said.

rayjohnsonMUGRay Johnson

But Cuba gets a pretty low rating in the most recent International
Religious Freedom Report issued by the State Department this week.

"Although many religious groups reported reduced interference from the
government in conducting services, importing religious materials,
receiving donations from overseas, and in traveling abroad," the report
said, "serious restrictions to the freedom of religion remained."

Those restrictions included detaining pastors in eastern Cuba for
attempting to distribute aid to hurricane victims, and confiscating that
aid. And many religious leaders said they used self-censorship in
sermons and other services to avoid government scrutiny, the report said.

"Many feared that direct or indirect criticism of the government could
result in government reprisals," including measures that could limit
congregational growth.

However, the report also said religious groups in Cuba report an
"improved ability to attract new members without government interference."

And that is what Johnson said he has seen during his two visits to the
island, where CBF Florida has a partnership agreement with the Eastern
Cuba Baptist Association.

Johnson said he first visited in 2008 and then again in 2012, and the
situation for Cuban Baptists had greatly improved in that time.

"There was a tremendous difference in the ability of churches to act and
to worship," Johnson said.

CBF Florida's partnership with the association, which is historically
connected to American Baptist Churches USA, currently includes pulpit
swaps between the two countries, donating bicycles to pastors in eastern
Cuba and providing storm aid. Efforts are also underway to foster
church-to-church relationships between American and Cuban congregations.

The association has about 500 churches and 800 mission congregations
today compared to 300 churches and 500 missions in 2008, Johnson said.

Johnson said he does not dispute the descriptions of repressions
contained in the State Department report. He said he hasn't witnessed
those abuses on his trips and wasn't told about them by Cubans.

But that isn't surprising, he added.

"If it's happening, the people aren't going to talk much about it" with
foreigners, Johnson said.

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