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Persecution Overshadows Cuban Leader’s Pledge on Religious Freedom

Special Report by ICC

01/17/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Christians in Cuba were optimistic when Raul Castro took over from his brother, Fidel Castro, as the country’s supreme leader in 2009. But three years later, their hope has turned into disillusionment.

There were 120 reported violations of religious freedom in this communist nation in 2012, while there were 30 in 2011, says a report by the Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CWS).

Church leaders in the city of Santa Clara have condemned the government’s refusal to allow Trinidad First Baptist Church access to its bank accounts with funds amounting to about $27,000. The accounts for the historic local church were frozen two years ago, the London-based group reports.

In a separate incident, leaders of the Apostolic Movement, the fast-growing unregistered network of Protestant churches, recently complained against an order to destroy church property. The order contradicts written permission for its construction by another government agency.

In yet another incident, a decorated retired military officer and his wife, who suffers from thyroid tumors, had their electricity cut off by the authorities last October. Church leaders believe it is because their son is a worship leader.

Other incidents include repeated fines, arbitrary arrests and detention, consistent harassment from state security agents, refusal of permission to participate in Christmas services and the severe and tragic beating of a pastor that resulted in permanent brain damage.

The targeting of Christians by authorities goes against the hopes Raul raised after the leadership change.

Christians had survived decades of religious discrimination and persecution. But since Raul took over about three years ago, they began to see unprecedented changes in the nation’s relationship with religion. The younger Castro, who is the world’s longest-serving defense minister, promised to move away from the old communist policies towards a progressive future that made more room for religion. He even eased some restrictions on personal freedoms by lifting bans on mobile phones and home computers, and has promised to consider allowing Cuban citizens to travel abroad as tourists.

Under his leadership, it seemed that the government saw Christianity as something good for the country. The Open Bible Church of Havana, for instance, grew from 12 to 103 prayer groups in the area. Other church leaders testified to the warm reception they got from people as they went to various places with food and clothing. The Church was even given permission to teach children in public schools about basic moral principles, a freedom that the church in America does not enjoy. Though some believe it was because the government saw the Church as a cheaper way to carry out social programs, it was still taken as a sign of progress. But their optimism was short-lived.

The nation's motivations for opposing religion are obvious. It's a single-party communist state that wants to preserve its power at all costs. Its strategy for remaining in power appears to be to control its people and preempt any possibility of opposition to authority. The Church is seen as a threat to its unopposed, authoritarian rule. Typically, communist governments around the world restrict people from forming associations of any sort, unless those associations are willing to be monitored, and thus virtually controlled by the state. That's why Cuban law makes registration of churches compulsory. The idea of people gathering together to worship God, who inspires social action and advocacy, is perceived as a dangerous one. The natural, but unnecessary, reaction is to monitor, control, harass, intimidate and manipulate the Church to remind her of its rulers, lest she try to oppose them.

For instance, Trinidad First Baptist Church was targeted and its accounts frozen because of its refusal to bar members of the Cuban dissident movement, CSW noted.

However, none of the targeted harassment in Cuba is warranted. The Church is simply seeking the freedom to worship, in due submission to authority, but without the fear of interference or intimidation.

Raul Castro’s words are falling short of their promise. What began as a movement towards progress needs to be sustained and guarded from threats to religious freedom that exist within the government. He needs to address the urgent concerns of the Church in Cuba, as it continues to groan for a government that will value its presence, uphold its rights and preserve its interests, for the sake of the greater good.

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