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Cuban Baptist pastors among those beaten, jailed after July protests

CUBA (BP) – At least one Protestant pastor remains in a maximum-security prison in Cuba months after July protests there over the economic and COVID-19 crises, a U.S. religious freedom study group said.

Other religious leaders are among an unknown number who have been detained and beaten, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a factsheet more than 10 weeks after thousands of Cubans protested in what USCIRF said were the largest demonstrations in decades there.

“An unknown number of protesters remain detained, disappeared and under house arrest,” USCIRF said in its report released Sept. 20. “Those detained included several religious leaders and members of religious communities.”

As many 700 demonstrators and activists were retained, and USCIRF said it has received additional reports of Christians being detained since filing its factsheet.

“Some of these individuals face health concerns,” USCIRF said, “making the calls for their release particularly urgent in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, an Apostolic Movement pastor in Santiago de Cuba, and his 17-year-old son were arrested after peacefully protesting July 11. Authorities “placed him in a chokehold and repeatedly kicked” him during his arrest, separated him from his son, and refused to inform him of criminal charges against him, USCIRF said. Fajardo was transferred to a maximum-security prison Aug. 7 and remained there at the time of the report. His son has been released, but for week’s Fajardo’s wife didn’t know whether he was alive, the report states.

Pastors Yeremi Blanco Ramirez and Yarian Sierra Madrigal, both with the Berean Baptist Mission in Matanza, were arrested July 11 and transferred to house arrest July 24, USCIRF said, with criminal charges pending. Cuban authorities told the two pastors they would be fined for participating in the protests, but would not face a prison sentence. Madrigal’s family was evicted from their home in retaliation.

Authorities repeatedly hit Catholic priest Castor José Álvarez Devesa with a bat, arrested him for seeking medical care and released him two days later. Yusniel Pérez Montejo, a member of the Eastern Baptist Convention, was detained, interrogated and accused of incitement before he was released July 14.

“Diverse religious communities in Cuba have spoken in support of the protesters and greater freedom of expression,” USCIRF wrote, “emphasizing the fundamental rights to peaceful demonstrations and freedom of expression or opinion.”

USCIRF documented Cuba’s poor religious freedom conditions in its 2021 Annual Report released in April, describing the country’s “system of laws and policies, surveillance and harassment to control and suppress religious groups and others for their advocacy or support of religious freedom.” Independent and unregistered religious communities are particularly restricted.

In a joint statement with 20 other countries days after the arrests, the U.S. called for the release of all prisoners and urged Cuba to respect the universal freedoms of all Cubans.

While the U.S. has issued sanctions against Cuba for abusing human rights under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, USCIRF is urging the Biden administration “to also push to advance religious freedom” by drawing attention to religious freedom violations and calling for accountability among government leaders.