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Cuba ramps up religious persecution after election

HAVANA (BP) — Cuban pastors fear the government will further restrict religious freedom after clergy actively opposed the nation’s new constitution, a religious liberty advocate said today (Feb. 28).

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), tracking religious persecution in Cuba and 20 other countries, said the Cuban Communist Party (CCP)is fearful of pastors because they sway public sentiment.

“We’ve seen the churches, particularly the Protestant churches, mobilize in a way they never have since 1959 in the past few months against the constitution and they’ve become very vocal,” Anna Lee Stangl, CSW joint head of advocacy, told BP.

“That’s always something the government has feared. They’re aware of the role religious groups played in the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe for example,” she said. “And so they’ve always tried really hard to divide the churches, to shut them up, to really scare them.”

The government does not use physical violence against pastors, Stangl said, but has detained pastors for hours and used various methods of intimidation to force pastors to support the communist party, such as threatening to limit educational opportunities for their children.

The new constitution, approved with 86.6 percent of a nationwide vote Feb. 24, remains largely symbolic, Stangl said. Laws dictated through administrative codes are oftentimes not available to the public. Codes are used to restrict the practice of religion, requiring churches to register with the government and to hold church events only after securing permits, which can be delayed for years.

“I think nobody expected things to change drastically with the new constitution,” Stangl said. “But just the fact that the Cuban government found it important enough to weaken the language even further is indicative to us that they intend to go in an even harsher direction.”

The government is likely preparing an intense wave of Christian persecution, Stangl believes.

“I think me and a lot of other people I know who observe religious freedom in Cuba are expecting some sort of major crackdown,” she said, “because the government does not want the churches to be united in the way they are.”

A cross-denominational group of Christian leaders, led by the Methodist Church of Cuba and Assemblies of God, was ignored when it called for changes to the proposed legislation in advance of the election, and the government pressured pastors to support the referendum.

Pastors campaigned to amend constitutional language that defined marriage as between “two people,” as opposed to one man and a woman. But the government responded by dropping the clause entirely. Likely, legal codes affecting families, “family codes,” will be used to usher in gay marriage, Stangl said.

The new constitution drops the state’s recognition of “freedom of conscience and religion” and no longer recognizes an individual’s right to change their religious beliefs or to profess a religious preference. Instead, the constitution simply “recognizes, respects and guarantees religious freedom,” according to a CSW press release. Also, the new constitution states that religious and state institutions both have the same rights and responsibilities.

In its reports today of harassment and persecution, CSW named three pastors who were detained for hours in the days before and after the Feb. 24 election. Christian literature was described as “against the government” and confiscated from two high-profile pastors in the Apostolic movement, CSW said. Hired drivers employed by the government were fired for giving rides to church members, and the government has withdrawn permits required for church events where foreign missionaries were scheduled to speak.

Pastor Sandy Cancino, an outspoken opponent of the new constitution, was blocked from voting at the Cuban Embassy in Panama despite having the proper identification and documentation, CSW said.

“It’s horrible what is happening in our country,” CSW quoted another church leader, who said the government has become paranoid. “A friend in my church was fired from his job. A 16-year-old student was questioned on how she was going to vote and because she said ‘no,’ they issued a pre-arrest warrant against her and took the case to the municipal level…. There are many other [similar] stories.”

Cuba is already a USCIRF Tier 2 “country of particular concern” for religious liberty violations noted in the USCIRF 2018 Annual Report. The CCP threatened to confiscate church property, repeatedly interrogated and detained religious leaders, prohibited Sunday worship and controlled religious activity, USCIRF noted.

Only 5 percent of Cuba’s 11.147 million people are Protestant, according to the U.S. Department of State. As many as 70 percent are Roman Catholic, mixed with traditional African religions including Santeria, the State Department said. A quarter of Cubans are religiously unaffiliated.