Cuban regime targets Christian leaders

Despite media reports heralding a new era of religious freedom in Cuba, the Caribbean island's hard-line Communist regime continues to use its ruthless intelligence services to oppress Christians, intimidate clergy and turn parishioners into government informants.

Last November, the Communist regime received positive international coverage when it permitted the establishment of a new Catholic seminary in Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years. Unfortunately, the regime remains resistant to wider changes.

"Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba," states the 2010 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a nonpartisan federal organization that advises the U.S. government on issues of religious liberty around the world.

Since the 1959 Communist revolution led by Fidel Castro, the Cuban regime has systematically oppressed the church.

When Cuba signed on to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2008, it appeared that president Raul Castro, who became leader after his brother Fidel stepped down in 2006, was prepared to implement human rights reforms.

However, the commission says that Castro has "yet to indicate, let alone institute, plans for large scale improvements in freedom of religion or belief and related human rights."

In the past, the Castro regime perpetrated "obvious forms of persecution" against the Christian community, a Cuba expert with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an international human rights group, tells ChristianWeek.

For example, threats of destruction or confiscation of church buildings were common. Some churches were actually razed by the regime.

However, Havana has become more image conscious in recent times.

"According to our findings," says the CSW expert, who cannot be identified for reasons of personal security, "there appears to be a trend away from overt and obvious forms of persecution, which often attract negative attention in and outside of Cuba."

The Castro regime now targets individual priests and pastors, which tends to draw less international attention.

"Pastors and priests report being summoned or visited regularly by Cuban intelligence agents for chats," the CSW expert says. "The purpose seems to be to intimidate them, relay information about the pastor and his church fed to them by informants, and to make sure they know they are being closely watched."

Cuba's security apparatus generates an atmosphere of fear and paranoia.

"There is always the constant threat that a perceived disloyalty or lack of cooperation can have a direct impact on the children or relatives of the church leader," the CSW expert explains.

Clergy and laypeople from all denominations are targeted by the regime, sending "a strong message to others in their denomination of what happens to those who displease the government."

All religious activities in Cuba are tightly controlled by the powerful Office for Religious Affairs.

"Because the Office for Religious Affairs virtually never grants permission to build new churches and makes it extremely difficult to carry out renovations," explains the CSW expert, "the vast majority of churches in Cuba were built prior to the Revolution and many are not in good condition."

Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, tells ChristianWeek many of Cuba's 40 Anglican missions are in poor condition.

As chair of the Metropolitan Council of Cuba, the international body that oversees the Cuban church, Hiltz conducts annual visits to the island nation.

While acknowledging the challenges facing the church, including poverty and religious freedom, Hiltz is impressed by Cuba's large and extremely enthusiastic congregations.

Although Cuba was once considered to be one on of the least religious nations in Latin America, says the CSW expert, "Cuba has seen massive church growth over the past two decades."

However, Cuba's dilapidated churches cannot accommodate the growing number of Christians wanting to attend Sunday services.

"The solution has been the growth of house churches," says the CSW expert, "most of which are satellites of legal churches, but some of which have grown into proper churches in their own right."

The vast majority of house churches aren't registered with the Office for Religious Affairs, which can have dire consequences. "Their lack of legal status has led to many being fined, threatened with closure, confiscated and even destroyed," CSW reports.

As the only civil society group in Cuba, the Church is preparing for the day when the country begins the perilous transition to democracy.

"Church leaders who have spoken to CSW," says the group's Cuba expert, "have said that they see the role of the Church in any future transition as one of a shepherd, which will hopefully guide larger Cuban society through what could be a very difficult time ahead."

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Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.