New Government Regulations for Home Churches in Cuba Have Some Concerned

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

MIAMI, FLORIDA (ANS) -- Responding to the growth of evangelical Christianity in Cuba, Fidel Castro's government issued new measures regulating worship in home churches, or 'casas culto,' as the formerly illegal practice continues to spread.

Some Cuban pastors say the measures are similar to U.S. zoning regulations, designed to impose rules on fast-growing evangelical congregations, say Alexandra Alter and Frances Robles writing in the Miami Herald.

"If anything, it demonstrates the growth of churches in Cuba," said Pastor Elmer Lavastida of the Segunda Iglesia Bautista El Salvador in the eastern city of Santiago. "It's simply a movement with large proportions that has to be legalized."

But the measures worry other pastors and church activists, who see them as another way for the communist government -- officially atheist until 1992 -- to curb religious freedom.

Alter and Robles write that three 'casas culto' in central and eastern Cuba were closed by the government late last year for failing to meet the new regulations, according to the Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach (Echo Cuba), a Miami organization that conducts humanitarian missions through churches in Cuba.

The two reporters say the Cuban Council of Churches, a coalition of 25 Protestant denominations, recently formed a committee to track the new rules' effects.

"The Cuban government is afraid the church can create a kind of social movement," said Omar López Montenegro, head of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation's committee for human rights.

Alter and Robles write: "Home churches have been part of Cuba's religious landscape for more than a decade. Many of them were established as the numbers of worshipers outgrew sanctuaries and moved into apartments and houses.

"The government requires all denominations to apply for permits to renovate sanctuaries or build new church structures. But religious leaders say the government rarely grants building permits.

"The Cuban government has at times interfered with home church worship. In 1995, officials announced a ban on religious meetings in private homes and closed 60 Protestant churches throughout the country. The same year, an Assemblies of God pastor in the eastern province of Camaguey was sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to close his casa culto.

The two reporters say that, for the most part, however, the government has tolerated Protestant and Catholic 'casas culto,' which were technically illegal until the Ministries of Justice, Finance and Foreign Trade passed the new regulations. The measures were announced in April and went into effect in September.

They write: "According to a Cuban government publication, Gaceta Oficial, new restrictions require home churches to register with the government, provide full financial audits, limit their number of services and receive permission to host foreign visitors and missionaries."

Cuba, an island of 11 million, has between 500,000 and two million Protestants, said Marcos Antonio Ramos, a professor at the Florida Center for Theological Studies and a Baptist minister.

Alter and Robles continue: "Pentecostals and other Protestant evangelicals make up the fastest growing group, and Cuban churches have scarcely been able to keep up. According to the evangelical publication Operation World, evangelical Christianity in Cuba is growing by about 6.5 percent per year. Yet the number of official Protestant church buildings has remained at around 1,000 -- roughly the same number that existed when Castro came to power in 1959.

"As a result, the faithful have spilled over into an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 home churches. (The Catholic Church also has casas culto, which they call missionary centers, but the vast majority of home churches are Protestant, Ramos said.)"

Igor Alonso, a pastor at the Flamingo Road Church in Doral who has been on 10 church missions to Cuba, said he once attended a Baptist service in the port town of Mariel in which 40 people squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment.

"It's typical for a church of 200 people to have 15 to 20 home churches," he said. "That's what they know as their church."

But the growth also has made the government nervous, the two reporters explain.

"The government is a bit thrown off by this phenomenon," said one church expert in Cuba who asked that his name be withheld for fear of government reprisals. "It's growing, and they don't know what to do with it."

Last month, Havana Pastor Carlos Lamelas was jailed after he was accused of helping people flee the island. Lamelas, a pastor with a Pentecostal denomination, had preached at several home churches and openly criticized the Cuban government for curbing religious freedom, according to the broadcast Christian World News.

Alter and Robles write: "Cuban pastors often turn to American church groups for funding, which often adds to the government's suspicion. Some denominations, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, have been openly persecuted through expulsions and church closings; others, including Catholics and most Protestants, enjoyed an easing of restrictions for most of the 1990s."

They add: "U.S. evangelical aid workers say the Cuban government became even more wary of religious activity after the 2004 U.S. State Department's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba report, which encouraged U.S. churches to get involved in humanitarian relief work on the island to encourage a transition to democracy."

"There's suspicion that the United States is trying to create a church of transition to divide Cuba," said Teo Babún, a Miami Cuban American who is president of Echo Cuba. "They think people will attack the revolution through the churches."

Some Cuban pastors favor regulation, the reporters say.

"It's like in all parts of the world where there are laws," Niubes Georgina Pernes, a pastor in Holguín province, said by telephone. "The pastor has to have some level of prestige, not be some nut. As long as they are not counter-revolutionary, there's no problem."