Some Cubans are converting to Islam

Islam is attracting a small number of Cubans --
anywhere from 300 to 3,000 -- but some have doubted
their sincerity.
El Nuevo Herald

A small number of Cubans have embraced Islam,
gathering for prayers and attending religious events
mostly sponsored by Iranian diplomats in Havana, one
of the converts says.

Some Havana residents place the total number of
converts at 300; others, at 3,000. What's certain is
that about 70 usually attend the gatherings hosted by
the Iranian diplomats.

''We are a small community that struggles on. . . .
Many people associate Muslims with a not-very moderate
Islam, but we are very moderate,'' said Alí Nicolás
Cossío, a former foreign ministry official who now
reports for the Voice of Islam, the official Iranian
radio station.

'The community owes much to the embassies' moral and
human support, and the Iranian Embassy -- the only
Shiite mission -- stands out in that regard,'' Cossío
told El Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview from his
home in Havana.

There are about 16 Arab diplomatic missions in Havana,
Cossío said, but the Iranian embassy plays the leading
role in contacts with the local Muslims.


The mission created a writing contest about Iranian
history, hopes to set up a ''reflection group'' on
Islamic subjects and earlier this month hosted a
reception to mark the anniversary of the birth of the
prophet Mohammed.

The Communist Party's Department of Religious
Activities has appointed an official to work as
liaison with the converts, even though the Cuban
government has long been leery of outside religious
groups as potentially undermining its control over the
island and its people.

''An interesting dilemma,'' said Daniel Alvarez, an
expert on Islam at Florida International University.
``If these Cubans are looking for support and [the
Cuban government] acts against them, the Iranians
might see that as an anti-Muslim gesture.''


''The other aspect is the issue of human solidarity,''
Alvarez said.

``The Koran says that if someone asks a Muslim for
help, there is an obligation to go to the aid of the
needy. And if the needy is a Muslim, the obligation is
even greater.''

Religious practices have risen sharply in Cuba since
the early 1990s, when an economic crisis buffeted its
people and after the government abandoned its official

Foreign religious groups regularly send humanitarian
aid, which attracts more local followers.


Cossío said the new Muslim converts ``are in favor of
a community with values that are more cultural than
material. We are not interested in growth in numbers
but in growth in human quality.''

Cuban leader Fidel Castro's government has long
maintained good relations with most Muslim countries.
It strongly supported Yasser Arafat, the late leader
of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and had
close contacts with former Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein. Cuba also has close political and trade links
to Iran, which is predominantly Shiite.

Back in the late 1970s, Havana hosted so many
embassies from Arab countries that the diplomatic
missions, with the Cuban government's permission,
created a group, the Arab Union of Cuba, and obtained
a meeting place.


The new Muslim converts have tried to establish links
to the Arab Union, according to knowledgeable Cubans
in Havana. But the union considers itself a lay
organization and has not provided them with space for
religious services.

There's an ''official'' mosque -- within the Arab
House -- a restaurant-meeting hall in Old Havana
sponsored by the Office of the Havana Historian
Eusebio Leal.

But Cossío said that's only for diplomats and


So the converts are now asking for permission to build
a mosque in Havana.

''Cuba is the only Latin American country without a
mosque, and where there's no mosque it is very
difficult to establish social exchanges,'' Cossío

For now, though, that would seem unlikely. For years,
the Islamic diplomatic community asked for one but had
to resort to makeshift prayer halls in diplomatic
compounds. And Cuba has been all but barring other
religions from building new temples.


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