New House Church Restrictions Go Into Effect in Cuba

Friday, September 30, 2005

Increased controls expected to make registration more difficult.

Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, September 29 (Compass) – Government regulations aimed at curbing the growth of Christian house churches in Cuba took force on September 22, sparking fears that evangelical Protestants on the island could face a period of heightened persecution.

If strictly enforced, the measure would seriously restrict freedom of assembly and the right to propagate one’s faith.

“The growth of the house churches themselves has brought this on,” one Havana pastor said. “The authorities are saying: ‘the church has gotten out of hand.’”

Another pastor commented, “These regulations have no other logic except to try to shut down the church.”

Those opinions were expressed earlier this year, after the Cuban Ministry of Justice released “Resolution No. 46: Instructions for the Request, Procedure and Authorization to Celebrate Worship Services in Dwellings of Personal Property.” Published last March, the resolution granted a six-month grace period for church groups to acquaint themselves with the regulations and take steps to comply. The grace period officially ended September 22.

Some local authorities have reportedly invoked the new regulations to close house churches, but so far Resolution 46 has not sparked the widespread crackdown on house churches that some observers feared.

“There have been churches that have closed,” a source told Compass. “There are places where the church is weak, and the state has more control. But the majority have responded with resolve. Also, human rights activists are playing an important role in this issue.”

Of the many new regulations outlined in the 1,800-word resolution, house church leaders cite certain rules as particularly repressive. House churches have long had to register with the government, but the new regulations increase the amount of information they must provide: The name, address and educational credentials of the pastor must accompany each registration request, as well as property titles, the membership role and a schedule of weekly meetings.

House churches that fail to register, or whose request for authorization is denied, will be forced to close.

Apart from the difficulty of complying with the new regulations, the bureaucratic inertia that evangelical churches typically encounter in Cuba poses a formidable impediment to successful registration. One denominational leader said that, of 225 requests for house church authorizations he has submitted in the past 11 years, only eight have been approved.

Another clause of Resolution 46 stipulates that no church can exist within two kilometers (1.25 miles) of another church of the same denomination. This is expected to create difficulties for fast-growing house church networks like that of the Assemblies of God, which has 3,500 house churches in addition to 800-plus “official” congregations that meet in church-owned buildings. Assemblies officials estimate that if the government strictly enforces this rule, half of its house churches would have to shut down.

Those that remain would face stifling limitations on their day-to-day activities. Resolution 46 expressly restricts house church meetings to three per week, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

“When you consider that most of our churches meet twice every day to fast and pray, you realize that we are not going to be able to comply with these rules,” one pastor said.

Divide and Isolate the Church

Many house churches will also find it next to impossible to comply with regulations that prohibit meeting out-of-doors, in temporary shelters or on rooftops.

For example, an urban pastor said that in any given month, between 250 and 350 persons embrace faith in Christ through his ministry. Due to lack of space in existing church buildings (since 1959, the Cuban government has enforced a moratorium on new church construction and placed stiff restrictions on expansion of existing facilities), new converts have nowhere to go except to house churches.

These groups are often bursting at the seams, sometimes packing several hundred worshippers into a living room or apartment patio.

To avoid losing new converts, pastors are organizing cell groups to take the place of house churches. The smaller meetings should go undetected because, by law, up to 12 persons can meet in a private home for any purpose, be it a birthday party or a Bible study.

Few observers believe Resolution 46 will usher in the bad old days of the 1960s, when the regime of Fidel Castro seized hundreds of parochial schools, closed Catholic and Protestant churches and interned pastors in labor camps. Cuba’s president appears more sensitive nowadays to international opinion, human rights standards and the social cost of repression.

Nevertheless, advocacy organizations say the regulations are evidently an attempt to divide and isolate the fast-growing Christian community. This could reflect the regime’s fears that people movements – even apolitical ones like house church networks, which studiously avoid language or actions that could be construed as “anti-revolutionary” – could someday mount a challenge to the status quo.

Church leaders are preparing for persecution, should it come.

“Disagreeable things could happen,” said one. “Maybe some pastors will go to jail. But if they go, we are going with them.”

Church growth is not something that man can stop, he said. “If bad times come, we will just have to be on our knees more, shed a few more tears perhaps, but we will never turn back.”

Another leader speculated that Resolution 46 might even prove beneficial to the development of Christianity in Cuba. He sees signs that it may already be happening.

“I think the majority of churches have gotten on top of this and, to the contrary, become more united. The attempts to repress the church have resulted in the church becoming more unified.”

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct