A high-level Catholic priest in Cuba says religion is growing in the communist nation despite restrictions.
Archbishop Dionisio Guillermo Garcia Ibanez – who leads Catholics in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city – said the Catholic Church has expanded its reach as the government slowly permits more religious practice.
"The faith of our community has manifested, it has been reborn," said Garcia, during a recent visit to Miami, according to The Associated Press. "The Catholic faith in our community has resurrected."
Garcia listed progress in Cuba's religious freedom including the ability to knock on doors to share the Gospel, hold religious processions in streets, and the ability to broadcast Catholic radio programs.
In May, an international ministry serving the persecuted church even reported that it was allowed to ship over 134,000 Children's Story Bibles to Cuba – the largest shipment of children's Christian material in Cuba's history.
Cuban Christian leaders said several years ago communist leaders approached them to help educate the youth and combat the country's drug problems after seeing their good works in other social areas such as hurricane relief, reported the ministry WorldServe, which has assisted all 54 Evangelical denominations in Cuba.
The leaders agreed to help but said they needed permission to plant churches and import Bibles. Cuban officials reportedly agreed to both requests.
Despite the Cuban archbishop's seemingly positive report, however, the AP reporter who interviewed him noted that Garcia seemed to be cautious to not criticize the government.
One of the archbishop's hosts, a Miami bishop who was born in Havana, pointed out that Cuba is still a closed society.
"That is a society that is not pluralistic, it is unidimensional and somehow they have to live with that reality," said Bishop Felipe Estevez, an auxiliary bishop with the Archbishop of Miami. "They are kind of talking out of adversity."
Ambassador John V. Hanford III, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, would agree that although there has been improvement there are still many religious freedom violations in the country.
Hanford noted during a briefing earlier this month of improvements such as Cuba's Ministry of Justice granting legal registration to a number of groups. Yet he was quick to point out that the government is still guilty of surveillance and harassment of religious persons.
The ambassador also criticized Cuba for forcing its house churches to register, leading unregistered churches to be technically illegal and vulnerable to government harassment.
There were only 1,100 churches and house churches in 1991 – the year when the Congressional Communist Party voted to change Cuba's constitutional status from atheist to secular state, according to WorldServe. Now, there are more than 16,000 house churches.