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.
SLATE OF ACTIVITIES
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.''
AID THE NEEDY
''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 atheism.
Foreign religious groups regularly send humanitarian aid, which attracts more local followers.
NUMBERS NOT PRIORITY
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.
HAVE SOUGHT LINKS
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 foreigners.
REQUEST FOR MOSQUE
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 said.
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.