Methodist bishop says Cuba easing church restrictions

North Alabama United Methodist Bishop Robert E. Fannin recently returned from a trip to Cuba, where he was among the leaders of a summit that called on the communist government to allow more freedom to establish churches.

Fannin, vice chairman of the World Methodist Council's world evangelism division, met with Caridad Diego, director of religious affairs for the Cuban government, to discuss relations between Fidel Castro's government and the Cuban Methodist Church.

"They were very open to us, very appreciative of what the United Methodist church does in Cuba," Fannin said. Diego, a member of Castro's cabinet, mentioned she was interested in the fact that the Methodist church ordains women, Fannin said.

Castro's government, which seized control of all church property when it took power, has in recent years eased its restrictions on churches.

"They took our churches during the revolution; they're giving those back," Fannin said.

While Castro has not returned all the seized church property, the church is negotiating for more buildings to be returned and for permission to expand work, Fannin said.

"We're trying to work with the government to give us permission for new churches," Fannin said. "You still have to get permission to do everything you do."

Not all denominations have been successful in their negotiations with Castro's government. "It's more receptive to certain churches," Fannin said.

Fannin traveled to Cuba on a private flight from Miami. The trip had to be approved by the U.S. government, which restricts trade with Cuba.

While in Havana for the Methodist Evangelism Leadership Summit, Fannin attended a mass baptism of 200 people.

"The church is alive and growing in Cuba," he said.

Fannin's Cuba visit this year may be the last foreign trip of his tenure, which has included extensive travels to Africa, Asia, South America and countries in the former Soviet Union.

Fannin has served 12 years as bishop of the North Alabama Conference, which has 159,270 members in 866 churches, and his term will expire this summer. The United Methodist Church will elect new bishops in July and assign a bishop to Birmingham effective Sept. 1.