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Cuban Churches Feel Pressure from Government to Stifle Dissent

ICC Note:
We do not often hear from Cuba, but this article sheds light on the bigger picture of what is happening there.

By Frances Robles
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
The Kansas City Star (12/12/06) – MIAMI – Carlos Lamelas, a Cuban evangelical pastor who spoke up about religious freedom on the island, first found himself booted from his church, and then jailed.

But the former Church of God president does not stand accused of political dissent or other counter-revolutionary activities. His alleged crime: human trafficking.

Lamelas went on trial last week for allegedly smuggling people out of the island, and if found guilty faces nine years in prison.

“Persecution of pastors is subtle,” said Alexandri Sosa, a pastor who left Cuba this summer after having problems with the government. “The methods have changed. So if a wall collapses and you rebuild it, you go to jail for illegal construction.”

Experts say the Lamelas case illustrates the pressure on religious leaders to cooperate with Cuba’s Council of Churches, a coalition of Protestant denominations close to the government. It also underscores the tightrope pastors in Cuba walk in their quest to avoid politics and hold on to their congregations.

Christian activist groups have launched an Internet campaign publicizing Lamelas’ case, highlighting it as an example of a wider move to restrict religious freedom in Cuba. While Cuba closes unlicensed churches nationwide, church groups say pastors are being singled out for harassment.

Last year, Pastor Manuel Jesus Rosado Arencibia, of Remanente de Dios church in Matanzas, was jailed after distributing evangelical leaflets.

A Roman Catholic Church layman, an agronomist who edits the religious magazine Vitral, which runs articles that criticize the government, lost his job as president of a state tobacco company when he refused a government plea to give up the magazine. He now spends eight hours a day in a shed, guarding palm tree stalks used to make cigar boxes, The Associated Press reported.

Pastors are by no means being targeted in a crackdown, and pastors acknowledge that the pressure they get is a far cry from the early days of Castro’s revolution, when more than 100 priests were expelled from Cuba for allegedly working against the government. Other religious leaders were interned in work camps called UMAPs, Military Units to Help Production.

The Cuban government was officially atheist until 1992.

“Pastors are marginalized,” said Rev. Efrain Reyes, who moved to South Florida after his release from the UMAP. “Everyone tries to keep his mouth shut. They can get into big problems. You never know who is listening.”

Pastors say the Cuban government is cautious of religious leaders because of their ability to congregate with – and preach to – so many people each week. The church is among the few entities not directly controlled by the communist government, so officials try to monitor members of the clergy.

The government is also suspicious of the close ties the ministers often have with Protestant churches in the United States. While those relationships often bring much-needed aid to Cuba, the government is wary of more conservative churches’ influence on their Cuban counterparts.

The Cuban government wields tremendous leverage over the pastors, as they must turn to the government to get much-needed, but rarely given, permission to build churches.

Sosa, now in Europe, said the Cuban government generally avoids creating martyrs by jailing pastors. When he was having run-ins with the government for speaking out on mundane issues, he started getting warning notes in his weekly offerings basket… [Go To Full Story]