Communist Cuba has a thriving group of Muslims in their community. It may seem like an unlikely place, but as many as 10,000 are now blending into the Latin American way of life and hold daily prayers inside Cuba’s first mosque.
Once Fidel Castro took over in 1959 and instituted his communist government, freedom of religion was no longer permitted. As the years passed, Cuba’s government began easing such restrictions and allowing a much freer expression of religion with Catholicism being the predominant religion, followed by Santeria which is a mix of African, Caribbean and Catholic beliefs, and in more recent years, Islam.
Imam Yahya said that at one stage there were so few Muslims on the island that they were able to hold prayers inside one of their homes. The Muslim community in Cuba has since grown and he is now President of Cuba’s Islamic League. They hold prayers from a mosque which was inaugurated last year by funding received from Turkey’s President. The mosque is situated next to an Islamic museum, The Arab House, and offers Spanish-Arabic copies of the Quran.
The Muslim population has grown largely due to the number of students who came to Cuba from countries in Africa like Niger, Chad, Nigeria, and Rwanda. When Pakistan was hit by a destructive earthquake in 2005, many Pakistanis came to settle in Cuba where the government provided them with scholarships to study.
The growth of Islam in Cuba and Latin America has been difficult as it is a region which has not had much exposure to the Islamic faith. However, many of the locals who live near the mosque have come to accept their Muslim neighbors. Marlina Barbosa is a sixty-seven-year-old woman living in Old Havana, where she rents rooms to foreigners. She says that there is so much negativity spoken about Muslims, but she does not mind having them in Cuba. She feels that everyone should be able to practice their religion freely.
Islam is still new to Cuba and with more religious freedom, some of the Cuban Muslims walk around the Havana neighborhoods clothed in the traditional Muslim white dress and teach others who are curious about the religion.