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.
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.
CSW said it had received reports from “numerous denominations” that the law, known as Legal Decree 322, has been used to target “scores” of churches, including historic properties, across the island.
“We stand with the Assemblies of God denomination in Cuba and every other denomination that is fighting the illegal expropriation of their properties by the Cuban government,” said Mervyn Thomas, CSW’s chief executive.
“The courage of these Christians in Santiago, who despite the risks dared to march in solidarity in support of religious freedom and then put their bodies between Pastor Polemo’s church and
the demolition equipment, is to be commended.”
The Assemblies of God leadership also sent a letter to Cuban leader Raul Castro saying they refuse to accept the expropriation of any of their churches or chapels.
That letter was accompanied by a petition with 23,739 signatures, amassed in five days, Christians said.
Castro has pledged reforms and in September praised Pope Francis visit to the island saying it has inspired him to consider returning to the Catholic Church.
He also praised Francis for his criticism of consumerism and environmental degradation and thanked him for his role in restoring ties between the United States and Cuba, while calling for the closing of the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.
However reports by devoted Christians and activists suggest that active churches are still seen as a threat by authorities to the Communists’ atheistic oriented power base.
“We now call on the international community to stand in solidarity with them as well and to press the Cuban government to repeal Legal Decree 322 and to cease its attacks on churches across the country,” Thomas added.