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By ICC’s Latin America Correspondent

09/15/2016 – Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – “It was one of those moments that you never forget. Knowing that your daughter is watching something like that is a painful experience. It’s hard for a young mind to understand that expressing your beliefs and your opinion can land you in a jail cell. You think to yourself: standing up for what is right could end up being the end of my life.

These are Pastor Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso’s words as he shared an emotional narration of being physically harassed and subsequently arrested for openly expressing his Christian faith. Lleonart’s frustration was evident in his voice, as he conveyed the disillusionment of his oldest daughter and wife having to watch him be detained and not being able to do anything to prevent it from happening.

Lleonart is a Cuban pastor who recently emigrated from the island due to religious persecution. Lleonart leads the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the town of Taguayabon in Villa Clara Province in Cuba, and is a member of the Western Baptist Convention, one of the largest registered religious organizations on the island. In addition to being a pastor, Lleonart is also a human rights activist. After being informed of a direct threat against his life and his family, Lleonart felt that he had no choice but to move to the United States in search of safety. He and his family have been living in the United States for approximately three weeks.

In a recent meeting with International Christian Concern (ICC), Lleonart gave a transparent and honest account of his testimony, ministry, and the many episodes and encounters he has had with Cuban authorities over the years. Throughout the conversation, Lleonart’s serious, yet passionate retellings were evidence of his devotion to the Cuban Church.

He shared a moving and revealing memory from his childhood, of when he was in the classroom of his small hometown in Cuba. A government official entered the room, asking the teacher and the children who among them was “religious.” Having been raised by Christian parents, Lleonart raised his hand in innocence and without shame. Looking around the room at the other children, he remembered the uncomfortable atmosphere produced from the official’s threatening tone.

Lleonart recalled, “This was one of the first times in my childhood when I came face to face with fear. I knew that whatever that man was asking, he was asking it for a bad reason. It was there that I began to see and understand that something about the environment and society I lived in was different in some way.”

When asked about recent incidents of persecution and the confiscation of churches, Lleonart confirmed that the 1,400 churches being targeted for confiscation by the Cuban government is an accurate estimate. He states that a considerable number of these churches are small congregations of people that gather in private homes or other facilities. Many of them are being confiscated based on the claim that they are not legally registered entities.

Despite the churches’ attempts to be discrete, Lleonart clarified, “The Cuban government has well-designed networks in cities and communities (through police or other trained agents) that keep a vigilant eye on any unauthorized activity. If you are a religious group and you haven’t been ‘registered,’ you can be sure that at some point, some government official is going to come knocking at your door. If that happens, the next thing to come won’t be pleasant.”

Lleonart has been famous for his public denouncements and outspoken criticism of the Cuban government. He has particularly focused on the mistreatment of pastors and churches. Lleonart explained to ICC that the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party is the entity responsible for conducting and facilitating religious matters between the government, churches, and communities. He states that religious liberty is severely limited because the ORA maintains a registry of churches that are “approved” to practice their faith and worship. Any “non-registered” church is not only prohibited from engaging in religious activities, but also aggressively hounded by the government to shut down.

With a touch of cynicism, Lleonart explained, “In theory, the ORA is supposed to mediate and act as a bridge between churches, people, and the government. But if you’ve lived in Cuba or know anything about the way things are from the inside, you know the ORA is nothing more than an arm of the state established to suppress the religious liberties and rights of Cuban citizens. It’s just another one of the government’s ways to have eyes and ears everywhere.

Lleonart’s move to the United States comes at a time when a wave of governmental repression seems to be hitting Christians especially hard. The confiscation and closure of more than a thousand churches throughout the island is only part of the problem, as the government also plans to demolish hundreds of them.

It’s one thing to close down a church and to evict its members. That’s bad enough, but then there’s the problem of destroying or even burning things inside the building; not to mention, the threat of physical violence that comes with the territory of being a Christian in Cuba.”

Despite the dismal circumstances and the ongoing persecution of Christians, Lleonart expressed hope and excitement for the Cuban Church. “The reason the government sometimes tries to silence the Church or to close down church buildings is because it is worried about how many people are turning away from the state and looking to God (and the Church) for answers and for hope.”

Lleonart was expectant of how he could continue to help his brothers and sisters in Christ, even when away from his homeland. “I’ve got more to write and much more to say. I will pray that God [gives] me guidance to know how to best help my country and use my story as a way to bring light about persecution in Cuba.”