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Cuba's Getting a New Leader: How Will He Affect the Church?

04-17-2018

US ministries that support the church in Cuba say they don't expect the likely new president will open the door for greater religious freedom in the island nation, but they're cautiously optimistic for the church's future, given its robust growth in recent years.

Tommy Green, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention, told CBN News "there's a tremendous revival taking place in Cuba."  

CBN News has reported on this growth in recent years. It has mostly come within the structure of house churches which have multiplied in the face of government restrictions. 

The expected new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is a Communist party official who has stayed largely out of view. Green, whose convention sends almost one missions team a week to Cuba, says he's really not sure how Diaz-Canel might affect ministry activities.

Dr. Teo Babun, president of EchoCuba, says his faith-advocacy organization's interviews with Cubans reveal that they're not expecting any major shifts in policy towards the church. "Their expectations are not high," he told CBN News, "They don't expect any changes."

Still, Babun is urging EchoCuba's ministry partners to remain cautious. His message to them: "Just remain steady in your ministry for about three to four months because we expect that the Cuban government will be very alert."

Brian Stewart, the head of Action International Ministries, has traveled regularly to Cuba for years and says if Diaz-Canel sticks to the course set by Raul Castro, the church should continue to thrive.

Stewart notes that under Raul, evangelical churches grew in number and in freedom of expression. "Things have been going in the right direction the last few years," he said, explaining that Cuban believers can share their faith door-to-door and on street corners.

The larger concern of believers, he says, may be economics. "Everybody spends such a large percentage of their day's energy looking for food, providing for their family," he said.  

The scarcity of food in Cuba continues as a major issue and it's not helped by relations with Venezuela or the US. Prior to Venezuela's economic collapse, its subsidies to Cuba totaled more than $6 billion a year. There's also concern about diminished business opportunities with the US. Stewart says believers are wondering what will happen. "They see the hope of getting closer to the US is being rolled back by the Trump administration," said Stewart, especially as the US embassy staff has dwindled to just 10 diplomats.  

Last fall, the State Department withdrew all but essential personnel after two dozen people working for the embassy complained of a variety of physical problems including hearing loss, ringing in the ears and head aches.

Groups that are working to bring the Bible into Cuba are hopeful that the new president might pave the way for greater disribution. Tracy Thomas, a spokeswoman for Biblica, the International Bible Society, told CBN News that it has 17,000 Bibles it's trying to get into the country. Its last shipment was in 2015. In 2016, the Cuban government turned away a vessel carrying Biblica Bibles and other cargo.

"If you're a US-based ministry, trying to get Bibles into Cuba is a challenge," she said.

Likewise, the American Bible Society says it's optimistic that it can continue to work with the Cuban government to bring Bibles to Cuba. Just recently, it finished a campaign to bring one million Bibles to the island.

Still, great concerns continue over the future of religious freedom in Cuba.  Babun is one advocate for dissolving the country's Office of Religous Affairs which he says controls every aspect of Cuban churches.

"They'll register who they want to register. They give permits to who they want to give permits. They'll shut down a church if they feel the pastor is not being amicable," he said.

Kiri Kankhwende, a spokeswoman for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said they've been calling for several years for the office to be overseen by an "accountable government body" rather than the Communist Party.  CSW would like to see religious decisions in Cuba subject to judicial review.  

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