Category Archives: Religious Freedom

Cuba: Crackdown on Christians sees 1,600 churches targeted

religiouspersecution

Christian Solidarity Worldwide

More than 1,600 churches have been targeted by authorities in Cuba this year as a crackdown on religious freedom continues.

Between January and July 2016, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) recorded 1,606 violations of religious freedom.

These included the demolition and confiscation of church buildings, the destruction of church property and arbitrary detention.

In March, prominent pastor and religious freedom activist Rev Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso was arrested just hours before President Barack Obama arrived in the country for his official state visit.

Religious leaders have also had their personal belongings confiscated, and more than 1,000 churches are still considered ‘illegal’ and are under threat of future confiscation.

According to CSW, church leaders have raised concerns that the government’s treatment of religious groups has significantly deteriorated in the last year.

CSW has accused the government of targeting church properties “to tighten its control over the activities and membership of religious groups and thus eliminate the potential for any social unrest.”

In its annual report on international religious freedom, the US State Department last week said the Cuban government “monitored religious groups” and “continued to control most aspects of religious life”.

“The government harassed, detained, and restricted travel for outspoken religious figures, especially those who discussed human rights or collaborated with independent human rights groups,” the report said.

“Many religious leaders stated they exercised self-censorship in what they preached and discussed during services. Some said they feared direct or indirect criticism of the government could result in government reprisals, such as denials of permits… or other measures that could limit the growth of their religious groups.”

The report also mentioned concern from some religious leaders that government tolerance for groups that relied on informal locations, such as house churches, was decreasing.

CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW is alarmed by the escalation of FoRB violations throughout Cuba, but humbled and inspired by the courage and perseverance of the many religious communities who continue to peacefully resist government pressure.

“We remain disappointed by the broken promises for reform on the part of the Cuban government and urge it to change course. We call on the international community and in particular the United Kingdom, European Union and the United States government to stand in solidarity with Cuban citizens by pressing the Cuban government to halt these repressive actions and ensuring that human rights, and in particular FoRB, remains a core component of any upcoming dialogues with the Cuban government.”

Cuba’s new Archbishop: “All I want to do is improve socialism”

bishopgarcia

Fox News Latino

Cuba’s new Archbishop says that all he wants is to “improve socialism” and will continue the work of former Bishop Jaime Ortega, a well known puppet of the Cuban regime:

In the mid-1970s, a recently ordained priest trekked the Cuban countryside, defying the communist government by distributing hand-printed religious pamphlets to townspeople bold enough to open their doors.

At the height of Cuba’s anti-religious sentiment, the man known as Father Juanito was tolerated thanks to his soft-spoken manner and unbending will, say those who followed his rise. His admirers say that personality served him well when he became bishop of the eastern city of Camaguey and launched an intensive outreach to the poor, arranging aid for needy pregnant women and diverting religious processions off main streets into the humblest neighborhoods.

“He’s an inexhaustible worker, and not in comfortable locations, but in difficult and tricky ones,” said Maribel Moreno, secretary and archivist for Camaguey’s archdiocese for two decades.

In more than a dozen interviews, those who know Juan de la Caridad García said they expect him to transform the Cuban Catholic Church in his new post as archbishop of Havana, which he assumed late last month. After three decades under Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a skilled diplomat comfortable in the halls of power, Cuba’s most important non-governmental institution is being led by a man focused on rebuilding the church’s relationship with ordinary Cubans.

Ortega built warmer church relations with the Cuban government, winning important freedoms for the church. He even helped negotiate U.S.-Cuban detente, carrying a secret papal message from Havana to Washington. The cardinal attended diplomatic receptions in Havana and cultural galas with high-ranking government officials. He gave television interviews to Cuban and international stations and spoke at major universities overseas.

When Pope Francis appointed García to head the Archdiocese of Havana in April, the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops highlighted García’s “simplicity of life, apostolic dedication, prayer and a life of virtue.”

“The overwhelming effort and the mood will be eminently pastoral, even though diplomatic and political matters must be tended to,” said the Rev. Ignacio Zaldumbide, a friend since they were university and seminary students.

García’s pastoral focus was on display one recent Sunday when he left Havana’s grand cathedral to celebrate Mass at the St. John the Baptist church in the small town of Jaruco, in central Mayabeque province. He handed out sweets to children and joked with congregants about how some town residents focused more on drinking than religion and attended church once every 40 years.

“Obviously there are many things to work on, many places to spread the word, but I’m not going to start from zero. The previous bishops and Cardinal Jaime Ortega have done a lot,” García told The Associated Press after Mass. “The church lives the Gospel, announces the Gospel and denounces what’s wrong in order for progress to be made.”

His predecessor has been criticized by dissidents and anti-Castro Cuban-Americans for praising achievements of the Cuban revolution and maintaining a non-confrontational relationship with the government, even as he helped negotiate the release of prisoners including those held on political charges. In retirement, Ortega will live in a former seminary in Old Havana, where some church observers believe he will serve for some time as the church’s main emissary to the Cuban government as García tends to his flock.

However the responsibilities are divided, García said he doesn’t intend to change the church’s approach to the government.

“I think the cardinal did a lot of good,” García said. “There’s a slightly negative image of him in some places and that’s false. I am going to continue what he did.”

García said he shares the government’s stated vision of gradual reform in Cuba, which is slowly opening its economy to private enterprise and granting Cubans a limited number of new personal freedoms within a single-party system criticized as the last undemocratic government in Latin America.

The church doesn’t want “capitalism or anything of the sort, rather that socialism progresses in a just, equal and brotherly society,” the new archbishop said.

Continue reading Cuba’s new Archbishop: “All I want to do is improve socialism”

Families who fled not thrilled with renewed US-Cuba relations

passengers

WUSA9

Not everyone is ready to paint a rosy picture when it comes to renewed US – Cuba relations.

Images of President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro are drawing a mixed reaction from families who fled the communist regime years ago.

Isabel Espino, 54, was born in Cuba and left with her family when she was 18. Her father was a pharmaceutical salesman, and she was preparing to go to college when the Cuban government confronted the family about their Catholic beliefs. Practicing religion was forbidden under Castro’s revolution.

Her father was forced to take a government job, and the family was no longer allowed to go to church.

“If you deny people freedom of speech, if you deny people freedom of religion, that’s not OK,” she said.

Espino still finds it difficult to talk negatively about the Cuban government, because she fears repercussion.

“It still scares me,” she said. “It’s not a ‘touristy’ destination for me.”
Since her family fled the country, Espino has not returned.

Now that the U.S. is opening up with Cuba, and diplomatic relations are improving, she and many others are not yet ready to forgive the government that drove them away from her homeland.

“This all happened at a point where the Cuban government was floundering badly, which is what we were all been waiting for 50 some years,” she said. “You can ask someone else for their side of the story. But this is my side.”

The Castros Continue to Shut Churches in Cuba

cubareligion

Newsweek

The Obama administration has been easing restrictions on travel, exports and export financing. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker spoke of “building a more open and mutually beneficial relationship.”

However, the administration expressed concern over Havana’s dismal human rights practices. Despite the warm reception given Pope Francis last fall, the Castro regime has been on the attack against Cubans of faith.

In a  new report, the group  Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) warned of “an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum,” which has “fueled a spike in reported violations of freedom of religion or belief.” There were 220 specific violations of religious liberties in 2014, but there were 2,300 last year, many of which “involved entire churches or, in the cases of arrests, dozens of victims.”

Even in the best of times, the Castros have never been friends of faith in anything other than themselves. The State Department’s 2014 report on religious liberty noted that “the government harassed outspoken religious leaders and their followers, including reports of beating, threats, detentions and restrictions on travel. Religious leaders reported the government tightened controls on financial resources.”

Last year, the  U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was similarly critical. The commission explained: “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups.”

Never mind the papal visit, “the government continues to detain and harass religious leaders and laity, interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.”

Now CSW has issued its own report. Last year’s increase in persecution “was largely due to the government declaring 2,000 Assemblies of God churches illegal, ordering the closure or demolition of 100 AoG churches in three provinces, and expropriating the properties of a number of other denominations, including the Methodist and Baptist Conventions.”

This wide-ranging campaign was led by the Office of Religious Affairs. Noted CSW: “In 2015, the ORA continued to deny authorization for a number of religious activities and in cooperation with other government agencies, issued fines and threats of confiscation to dozens of churches and religious organizations.”

Through the ORA the Communist Party exercises control over religious activities. Indeed, reported CSW, the office “exists solely to monitor, hinder and restrict the activities of religious groups.”

The regime also has increasingly targeted church leaders and congregants, for the first time in years jailing one of the former. In early January, two churches were destroyed, church members arrested and three church leaders held incommunicado. One of the government’s more odious practices, according to CSW, has been to threaten churches with closure if they “do not comply with government demands to expel and shun specific individuals.”

The regime’s destructive activities have been justified as enforcing zoning laws. But in practice the measure is a subterfuge to shut down churches.

Other legislation threatens house churches. While not consistently implemented in the past, “church leaders have repeatedly expressed concern at its potential to close down a large percentage of house churches.”

CSW concluded that the ongoing crackdown was an attempt to limit calls for social reform which would complement ongoing, though limited, economic changes. Detentions initially were concentrated on “Cubans considered by the government to be political dissidents,” including a group of Catholic women called the Ladies in White. The regime crackdown later “expanded to include other individuals associated with independent civil society, including human rights and democracy activists.”

The Obama administration was right to engage Cuba. After more than 50 years, the embargo serves no useful purpose.

However, even lifting all economic restrictions won’t turn Cuba into a democracy. Only sustained pressure from within and without Cuba is likely to force the Castro regime to yield control to the Cuban people.

As I wrote in Forbes: “Americans should forthrightly encourage freedom in Cuba. Religious believers should be particularly vocal in supporting people seeking to live out their faith under Communist oppression. Some day autocracy will give way to liberty even in Cuba.”

Cuba Attacks Christians As Washington Liberalizes Economic Ties

religiouspersecution

Forbes

En Español Martí Noticias

The Obama administration has continued its effort to expand contact between the U.S. and Cuba by easing restrictions on travel, exports, and export financing. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker spoke of “building a more open and mutually beneficial relationship.”

However, the administration expressed concern over Havana’s dismal human rights practices. Although Raul Castro’s government has continued economic reforms, it has maintained the Communist Party’s political stranglehold. Indeed, despite the warm reception given Pope Francis last fall, the regime has been on the attack against Cubans of faith.

In a new report the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide warned of “an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum,” which has “fueled a spike in reported violations of freedom of religion or belief.” There were 220 specific violations of religious liberties in 2014, but 2300 last year, many of which “involved entire churches or, in the cases of arrests, dozens of victims.” In contrast, there were only 40 cases in 2011.

Even in the best of times the Castros have never been friends of faith in anything other than themselves. The State Department’s 2014 report on religious liberty reported that it was easier for Cubans to engage in some charitable and educational projects and import Bibles. However, “the government harassed outspoken religious leaders and their followers, including reports of beating, threats, detentions, and restrictions on travel. Religious leaders reported the government tightened controls on financial resources.”

Last year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was similarly critical. The number of believers is growing, but the regime attempts to closely control religious practices. The Commission explained: “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups.” Never mind the papal visit, “the government continues to detain and harass religious leaders and laity, interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.”

Now CSW has issued its own report. There long has been discrimination against Christians in employment, university, and primary/secondary education. Communist Party members who convert and leave the party “face particular discrimination,” including threats made against them and their families.

Continue reading Cuba Attacks Christians As Washington Liberalizes Economic Ties

Cuba Authorities Halt Church Demolition After Protests

assembly of god

Cuban authorities have halted the demolition of an Assemblies of God church in the city of Santiago de Cuba after protesters, including the denomination’s regional head, held a spontaneous sit-in at the church, activists say.

Christians said the demonstrators also participated in an unauthorised march through the city and a “peaceful demonstration” at the local Cuban Communist Party (CCP) offices to rally against “ongoing government confiscations” and destruction of church properties.

Advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said some 500 Christians joined the march while similar protests were
reported in the cities of Guantanamo and Contramaestre.

Church leaders in Santiago say the “unprecedented march”, organised by the regional Assemblies of God leadership, came amid a new “wave of government expropriations of church property” which began this year on the Communist-run island.

The protesters gathered in front of the CCP offices, singing and praying, when they learned that the demolition had begun on an Assemblies of God church following an order by authorities.

SERVICES PROHIBITED

Pastor Fausto Polemo, who leads the local Pentecostal congregation, said he was warned earlier this year that his church was to be confiscated and he was prohibited from holding any more services.

The protesters marched to his church, located in the Calle Marti area, where the walls had already been knocked down, despite objections by the owner of the property, activists said.

“They gathered under the roof which was still resting on the frame of the building and which had not been destroyed. They then told the authorities that if they wished to continue the demolition, it would have to be carried out with them inside,” CSW said.

The march is part of a wider response by the Assemblies of God denomination to a general crackdown on, and expropriations of, church properties, Christians said.

Rights activists have linked the reported crackdown to new legislation introduced in January which allows authorities to confiscate property at their discretion.

Continue reading Cuba Authorities Halt Church Demolition After Protests