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Cuba: Obama visit stirs religious liberty discussion

WASHINGTON (BP) — As President Obama prepares to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, a U.S. senator has said further steps to normalize relations with Cuba could hinder the advance of religious freedom in the island nation.

Cuban Southern Baptists hold a range of views about the effect of strengthened U.S.-Cuba ties on religious liberty. For example, a Maryland pastor told Baptist Press normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba will enable the latter’s oppressive communist government. A Kentucky minister said closer ties will help persecuted Cuban believers.

Two Cuban-American GOP presidential candidates with Southern Baptist ties — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — have opposed Obama’s strategy of warming America’s relations with Cuba.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., wrote a Feb. 18 letter to Obama expressing concern over “the United States’ increasingly close relations” with Cuba and India — “nations that have not protected the religious liberty and human rights of their people.”

Cuba, Lankford noted, has been classified since 2004 as a “Tier 2” nation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), denoting a need for “close monitoring due to violations of religious freedom.”

“I am concerned by Cuba’s lack of attention to protecting religious liberty and human rights,” Lankford wrote. “As such, I request that the Administration reconsider any further steps to normalize relations with Cuba or financially benefit their oppressive government. Since relations have already significantly changed, I encourage the Administration to use this new relationship to encourage the Cuban government to respect the religious liberty and human rights of their citizens.”

Obama announced in December 2014 the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic relations after a 50-year freeze dating back to the beginning of communist rule in Cuba. The president has met twice with Cuban President Raúl Castro, and the two nations opened embassies in one another’s capitals last year. Obama has removed Cuba from America’s State Sponsor of Terrorism list and loosened travel and export restrictions, including a mid-February agreement to reestablish direct passenger and cargo flights between the two countries.

In announcing Obama’s March visit to Cuba, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Feb. 18 the trip will mark “another demonstration of the president’s commitment to chart a new course for U.S.-Cuban relations and connect U.S. and Cuban citizens,” The Wall Street Journal reported. The visit will include, Earnest said, “expressing our support for human rights.”

Lankford, a Southern Baptist, noted his concern that the Cuban government “continues to routinely harass smaller, independent churches” while granting “pockets of permitted freedoms” to Roman Catholics and major Protestant denominations that register with the state.

USCIRF’s 2015 annual report stated “serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba despite improvements for government-approved religious groups. The government continues to detain and harass religious leaders and laity, interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.

“Despite constitutional protections for religious freedom, the Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies and government-authorized surveillance and harassment,” according to USCIRF.

Cuba’s two Baptist conventions, for example, “continued to report surveillance and harassment by state officials, including receiving death threats and being victims of ‘acts of repudiation.’ The two denominations also reported increased threats of church destruction or confiscation,” USCIRF reported.

Gus Suarez, pastor of Hispanic ministries at First Baptist Church in Laurel, Md., told BP he agrees with Lankford’s call to halt normalization of relations with Cuba. Suarez fled Cuba in 1963 as an elementary school student and has never returned.

“I am opposed to President Obama’s decision to strengthen diplomatic ties with Cuba,” Suarez told BP in written comments. “This relationship will only help an old sinking communist ship stay somewhat economically afloat. The real beneficiaries are not the common people but the government. I am in agreement with Senator Lankford when he said, ‘Religious liberty is a basic human right and one that is denied to many people across the world.’ Until such time as Cuba makes a real commitment to religious liberty and human rights, there should not be any diplomatic relationship.”

Suarez remembers experiencing indoctrination to the Cuban government’s atheistic worldview in first grade when his teacher told all her students to close their eyes and open their hands. She placed a piece of candy in each student’s hands, then instructed the students to open their eyes and asked, “Who gave you that candy?” When Suarez answered, “God gave us the candy,” the teacher told him God did not exist and that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro gave him the candy.

Despite such religious oppression, Suarez is encouraged by God’s work in Cuba.

“Since 1959 Cuba has been under the communist regime of the Castro brothers,” said Suarez, a member of Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Frank S. Page’s Hispanic Advisory Council and a featured columnist for BP en Español. “I am amazed to see the creativity and faithfulness of the Cuban pastors who are serving in such difficult situations. God is great and powerful, and despite the lack of true religious freedom in Cuba the church continues to grow.”

Page told BP in written comments he “recognize[s] and appreciate[s]” Lankford’s perspective.

“Cuba has been well known to be a persecutor of Christian churches for decades now,” said Page, who has travelled to Cuba and met with Baptists from both of the nation’s conventions. “It is incumbent that we continue to keep pressure on that communist regime so that our brothers and sisters will know that we are standing with them.”

Cesar Perez, director of Hispanic ministries at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Ky., left Cuba in 2001 to attend seminary in Argentina before moving to New York in 2007. He told BP there is religious persecution in Cuba but also a more “tolerant environment” than there was decades ago. He believes normalizing diplomatic relations with the U.S. will further advance religious liberty by removing one of the Cuban government’s excuses for persecuting Christians.

From the time Fidel Castro assumed power, Perez said, “the [government’s] perception was that every evangelical denomination that had strong ties or historical ties with the U.S. could serve as a vehicle for the U.S. to spy or do underground work within the island. That’s why they were so [harsh] toward evangelical work. Now that this same communist government has taken steps to be open to the U.S. government … they cannot justify persecution or restriction of evangelical denominations.”

Normalized diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba also will open doors for American missionaries and churches to partner with Cuban believers in evangelism and discipleship, Perez, 43, said. He noted, however, that older Cuban believers who experienced harsher persecution than he did tend to view normalized relations between the two nations less favorably.

On the presidential campaign trail, Cruz and Rubio both addressed Obama’s scheduled Cuba visit during a CNN town hall Feb. 17.

Cruz, a Southern Baptist, said his aunt was arrested and tortured by the Castro regime and stated that, as president, he would not visit Cuba “as long as the Castros are in power.” Rubio, a Roman Catholic who sometimes attends a Southern Baptist church, called Cuba “repressive” and an “anti-American communist dictatorship,” stating it should be forced to make political changes before being granted normalized relations with the U.S.

Meanwhile regarding India, Lankford criticized the Obama administration for fostering “an even closer alliance” with India than America has known in the past despite India’s classification by USCIRF as a Tier 2 nation for its persecution of religious minorities. Obama has made two state visits to India, “more than any other President,” Lankford wrote. “Additionally, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue. Although five dialogues have been held since 2009, none have addressed India’s significant religious liberty issues.”

Lankford continued, “The United States should consider its role and relations with India with caution. While India continues to suppress religious liberty and human rights, I encourage the Administration to utilize the strength of our current relationship with India to support the religious liberty and human rights of Indian citizens of all faiths.”