Prospects Appear Dim for Religious Freedom in Cuba

Increased abuses range from arrests to enticing Christian leaders into immorality.

On the street in Old Havana, Cuba, where the Communist regime persecutes Christian church members. (Morning Star News photo)

On the street in Old Havana, Cuba. (Morning Star News photo)

HAVANA  (Morning Star News) – The Rev. Carlos Lamelas knows first-hand the diabolical nature of attempts by Cuban authorities to cripple Christianity on the Communist isle.


Refusing to allow government interference in the internal affairs of his congregation, Lamelas was charged with “human trafficking” (allegedly helping Christians to flee the island). He spent four months in jail and endured years of unjust treatment before leaving Cuba as a political refugee in 2011.


Like many pastors, Lamelas initially ran afoul of the government simply for effectively proclaiming Christ.


“When a religious leader attracts a popular following, the G-2 [State Security] mobilizes a team of psychologists to do a psychiatric evaluation and determine if he can be coerced,” Lamelas said. “They will launch a campaign to gather incriminating evidence against him, dispatch young women who try to seduce him or peddlers to offer him black market goods. In other words, they are going to entice him to commit some legal or moral offense.”


If a leader is impervious to such duplicity, he said, then arrest on false charges awaits him.


“The only step a church leader can take is simply to be faultless,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are very few who have managed to stand firm and maintain purity against so much pressure.”


Pressure from the international Christian community persuaded Cuban authorities to release Lamelas and eventually drop the false charges against him, but many Christians have not fared so well. One Christian aid and advocacy group found a sharp increase in violations of religious freedom by the administration of Raul Castro in 2012.


U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) counted 120 religious rights violations on the island last year, compared with 30 in 2011. Hundreds of people were affected, with some cases involving entire churches and denominations. CSW notes that the tally of religious rights violations does not include more than 200 people believed to have been incarcerated during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in March.


Roman Catholic churches reported the highest number of violations, with Baptist, Pentecostal and Methodist churches reporting constant harassment as well, according to CSW’s report. A common tactic is the arbitrary detention of parishioners attempting to attend worship, as happened to nine women affiliated with the Ladies in White, an association of wives and relatives of jailed dissidents. Police in Holguin arrested them early on the morning of Dec. 30 and did not release them until after Sunday Mass.


Besides false charges of criminal or immoral behavior, harassment also took the form of beatings, threats to imprison pastors or destruction of church buildings. Reutilio Columbie, pastor of the Shalom Christian Center in Moa, believes the government sent the thugs that beat him unconscious last year.


Local officials confiscated a truck he had purchased several years ago to transport worshippers to services at his church, according to CSW. The former owner, who is related to a member of the central committee of the local Communist Party, had evidently decided the sale price was too low.


Columbie’s protests over the illegal seizure fell on deaf ears in Moa, so he filed a complaint with the provincial government. As he left home at 2 a.m. on Feb. 6 to catch a bus to Holguin to press his case, assailants savaged Columbie, leaving him unconscious on the street. The pastor spent several days in a coma due to brain swelling. He now suffers from memory loss, speech impairment and constant dizziness and nausea.


The attackers took only an envelope containing legal papers proving ownership of the confiscated vehicle, leaving behind cash and the pastor’s mobile phone. Local police refused to file charges and said an investigation was “impossible.”


The incident highlights the official corruption and impunity that Christians confront, and the lack of any possibility of redress. In a Jan. 3 press statement, CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas noted that the Cuban government’s claims of reform and respect for human rights “cannot be taken seriously unless these violations are addressed and real protections for religious freedom for all are put in place.”


CSW this month publicly urged Castro to make protection of religious freedom – enshrined in Cuba’s constitution – a priority this year.


The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which has put Cuba on its “watch list” since 2004, noted in its 2012 annual report that “a number of religious leaders and followers were arrested and held for short periods of time in this reporting period, including dozens of members of the Apostolic Reformation.”


Throughout the island, religious leaders lamented increased surveillance by the government, interference in congregational matters and pressure to stop democracy and human rights advocates from participating in church activities, the report states. USCIRF urged U.S. officials to press the Castro regime to stop the arrests and harassment of religious leaders, cease interference in the activities and internal affairs of religious communities and allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally.


As do many Communist governments, Cuba perceives mass adherence to a given faith as a political threat. And although there are signs that Cuban Christians are standing up to government hostility, prospects for future progress in religious rights are unclear.


“I don’t think there is an objective parameter to make predictions about the Cuban church in the near future,” Lamelas said. “Nevertheless, I would like to maintain a bit of personal optimism, believing that just as in the days of Elijah, God has saved a faithful remnant for Himself, and this remnant will become the seed that grows into a victorious Cuban church.”




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