By Dalia Acosta
CÁRDENAS, Cuba, Nov 6 (IPS) - A group of Christian denominations and ecumenical organisations in Cuba have launched an ethical dialogue aimed at smoothing over their historical differences and fomenting mutual understanding, knowledge, and openness to debate.
"We want to be part of the solution, and that’s why we’ve taken this step. This doesn’t mean we will be at the centre of the ethical dialogue, but we’re going to promote it," Baptist pastor Raimundo García, the head of the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) in the city of Cárdenas, 160 kilometres from Havana, told IPS.
"We don’t intend to discuss doctrine, but rather ethical and moral issues. How is it possible to disrespect fellow-Christians, to recognise no limits, to seek to convert members of a different church, and to poach pastors and leaders with offers of higher salaries?" said García.
"Social action is part of Christian life, but we don’t see it as a means of attracting new members for the church," he said. "Some Christian groups are distributing material goods and other things in order to bring people into their church. Some even disparage other churches and religious leaders."
Baptists from the conventions of Western and Eastern Cuba, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists are participating in the discussion process, as are the Christian Reformed Church, the Brethren, the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the School of Practical Christianity, Caritas and the Catholic community of San Egidio.
About 40 people attended the workshop on contemporary problems affecting relations between Christian churches and institutions, in Cuba and in the world, held at the CCRD from Oct. 16 to 18, including several experts on socio-religious issues and a representative of the Cuban Council of Churches.
A World Council of Churches document, handed out to people at the meeting, recognises church unity as a permanent priority of the ecumenical movement and rejects inter-church proselytising as destabilising and creating tensions, scandals and division. "Lack of unity is leading us to take arrogant, selfish postures with spirituality that is divorced from reality, manipulation of the Bible and the gifts of the Spirit, disagreements and prejudice," said Adolfo Ham, rector of the Higher Institute of Biblical and Theological Studies (ISEBIT) in Havana, delivering the keynote lecture at the workshop.
According to Ham, this crisis of unity imposes the need to work out a code of ethics for inter-church relations, and to apply a strategy that includes spreading information and knowledge, practising tolerance in the context of a plurality of ideas, and dialogue within a framework of respect.
After decades of tension following the January 1959 triumph of the Cuban revolution, relations between Cuba’s socialist government and churches took a radical turn for the better in the wake of an Apr. 2, 1990 meeting between President Fidel Castro and 70 evangelical and ecumenical leaders.
As a result of this meeting, the ruling Communist Party opened up its membership to people of faith; discrimination for religious reasons diminished; and new opportunities for religious organisations to work in the social arena were created.
"In the 1990s, there was a change, in the sense that internal obstacles were removed. Christian denominations became stronger, some that had disappeared reappeared, and many new ones arrived. In 1967 it was estimated there were about 50 denominations, but in the 1990s there were over 100 denominations and sects nationwide," said García.
The growth in the number of churches coincided with the worst period of the economic crisis in Cuba, which was triggered in the early 1990s by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc, this Caribbean island nation’s main aid and trade partners.
Participants at the workshop in Cárdenas said the surge in church membership occurred because many people were drawn to religion in search of hope at that time, and were seeking ways of satisfying their spiritual as well as material needs.
The causes of the crisis in inter-church relations include lack of understanding of other denominations, poor theological training, personality cults and indiscriminate ambition for power, strong sectarian fundamentalism and the divorce between the Christian message and practical living, according to participants.
"Lack of dialogue and the absence of an expression of unity are confusing for society. People ask ‘why, if they are all Christians, are there so many different names, and so much division? Why does each denomination make an exclusive claim to the truth?’" Baptist pastor Gisela Pérez told IPS.
Other flaws tabled at the meeting were inter-generational conflict, failure to include women in meaningful roles, economic dependence on foreign churches, and competition between church authorities, causing divisions within different denominations.
As well as analysing the situation, the Cárdenas workshop produced a set of strategic working proposals including actions to encourage better knowledge of each other, uproot prejudice, accept the right to dissent and to be different, and foment dialogue with all who are willing to join in, without exclusion.
"A church not obsessed with making converts, that looks outwards at the community and identifies with its problems," was the proposal from one of the working groups, after acknowledging that an open attitude within a church is not always applied equally in the community.
On the contrary, some churches and individuals isolate themselves from society, as if to avoid "contamination," they said.
According to Gloria Rebustillo, of the B.G. Lavastida Christian Service and Training Centre in Santiago de Cuba, 847 kilometres from Havana, "churches are divided over the need to enter into dialogue with the community, in order to prepare the churches to relate to their reality and respond appropriately."
"The church is part of the positive forces in society, and must see itself as one community organisation among many. Church people come from that community and they can’t be split in two. I can’t belong to the Federation of Cuban Women and, separately, to the church. I am not two people," she said.