A number of years ago, I spoke on a panel at a large church near Chicago regarding the persecution of Christians in other countries. Seated to my right was a young pastor from Cuba, a refugee to the United States, who had been imprisoned for “abusing religious freedom” in the socialist paradise. He spoke powerfully about the tortures many Christians faced on the island prison of Cuba. Today, more than 55 years since the establishment of the Western Hemisphere’s first revolutionary socialist state, religious freedom remains deeply suppressed in Cuba. After Fidel Castro, Cuba’s dictator, seized power in 1959, all Christian broadcasts were canceled. The next year, all Christian publications were halted, and all Christian schools, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, or non-denominational, were closed. Ordinary Christians and their leaders were labeled “social scum” and jailed in Cuba’s notorious labor camps. Even Christmas and Easter were abolished, with Christmas replaced with a secular holiday. Even as late as December 1995, regulations were enacted that forbid the sale of paper, ink, typewriters, computers, and mechanical parts for photocopiers and printing presses to religious organizations. Technicians who helped churches repair their machinery risked losing their jobs. And yet, in spite of all the imprisonment, regulation, and persecution, today the churches in Cuba are flourishing, and are filled to overflowing. At the International book Fair in Havana in recent years, the Bible has been the best-selling book by far.
In advance of St. John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998, relations between the officially atheist government and the Roman Catholic Church began to improve slightly. The government revived observance of Christmas (which was always celebrated by the people), and in fact, Castro allowed masses and homilies to be broadcast on Cuban state media. The Cuban Communist Party also dropped a ban on church membership for its members that had been adopted after the 1959 revolution. However, the new relative “freedom” did not extend to non-Roman Catholic churches.
On Monday, Cuban government authorities announced that they would allow the construction of the country’s first new Roman Catholic church in 55 years. The new church, funded by donations from Roman Catholics in Tampa, Florida, will be built in Sandino, a small town in the western province of Pinar del Rio. It is expected to hold 200 people. Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Havana, was quoted, “The construction of a church is a clear demonstration of a new phase, of an improvement, in relations between the church and the state.” Of course, it is a small positive step. But I thought about the many militant non-Christians who complain about the pervasive nature of Christian thought and expression in the United States. I wonder how much happier they might be living in a revolutionary socialist workers paradise of Cuba. For me, I continue to support an embargo on Cuba until all of its people, including all Christians, are truly free.