Friday, March 23, 2012

US panel on religious freedom reports Cuban violations

Posted on Thursday, 03.22.12

US panel on religious freedom reports Cuban violations

Arrests, controls and surveillance of religious leaders in Cuba were
detailed in a report Wednesday from the U.S. Commission on International
Religious Freedom.
By Juan O. Tamayo

A week before Pope Benedict XVI visits Cuba, a U.S. government panel on
religious freedom has alleged "serious" violations on the island,
including arrests of pastors and "pressure to prohibit democracy and
human rights activists" from church activities.

The violations also include government "interference in church affairs"
and controls on "religious belief and practices through surveillance and
legal restrictions," said the annual report by the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom.

"Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba despite some
improvements," noted the report, issued Wednesday, which also listed a
number of arrests and pressures on individual religious leaders, all of
them Protestant pastors.

The panel also kept Cuba on its "Watch List," along with Afghanistan,
Belarus, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia and Venezuela. Another
list of 16 even more worrisome "Countries of Particular Concern"
includes nations, like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Among the improvements, it listed "the relations between the Catholic
Church and Cuban government … although the government maintains strict
oversight of, and restrictions on, church activities." It also noted
that Cardinal Jaime Ortega played a role in the process of releasing
more than 120 political prisoners in 2010-2011.

Other improvements included the greater freedom for churches to discuss
politically sensitive issues and more government permissions to
celebrate mass in prisons, carry out humanitarian work and access the
state' media monopoly, the report added.

"Things are not improving as much for the Protestant communities,
especially the evangelicals, because the government seems to have some
distrust there," Commission Chairman Leonard Leo told El Nuevo Herald.

The panel describes itself as a bipartisan part of the U.S. government
whose nine members, representing many religions, are appointed by the
White House and Congress leaders to assess religious freedom around the
world and make policy recommendations. Established in 1998, it is based
in Washington.

Its latest report came on the eve of Benedict's three-day visit to Cuba,
which has sparked hopes for reconciliation among all Cubans, and
complaints that he does not plan to meet with government opponents. The
visit starts Monday.

The 2012 latest report devoted three of its 331 page to detailing its
concerns on Cuba, where the communist government, officially atheist
from 1962 to 1992, has recently warmed up relations with the Catholic
Church and Ortega.

During 2011, the report noted, "religious leaders throughout Cuba
reported increased government surveillance, interference in internal
affairs and pressure to prohibit democracy and human rights activists
from participating in their churches' activities."

"The Cuban government largely controls religious denominations through
government-authorized surveillance and harassment, and at times
detentions, of religious leaders and through its implementation of legal
restrictions," it added.

Churches are required to meet "an invasive registration procedure" at
the Justice Ministry, it added, and only those registered can legally
receive foreign visitors, import religious materials and apply for
permission to travel abroad for religious purposes.

"Local Communist Party officials must approve all religious activities"
and the government limits religious activities through construction
permits, access to the mass media and approvals for publications,
according to the report.

Authorities also control churches by "limiting the entry of foreign
religious workers; denying Internet access to religious organizations;
denying religious literature … to persons in prison; denying permission
to hold processions or events outside religious buildings; and
discriminating on the basis of religion in the area of employment."

"Government-supported mobs continued to block members of the Ladies in
White from attending Sunday mass outside of Havana," the panel noted.

Among the religious leaders arrested were "dozens" of members of the
unregistered Apostolic Reformation, the report added, which attracted
pastors from churches in the Cuban Council of Churches, the
government-approved umbrella for Protestants.

Baptist pastor and human rights activist Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso
was detained several times in 2011 and government pressures forced
Baptist pastor Homero Carbonell and Methodist pastor Yordi Toranzo to
leave their posts, it added.

"Catholic and Protestant church authorities apparently do not look well
on clerics who challenge the established regulations, and in some cases
have transferred priests and pastors to other parishes," said Marcos
Antonio Ramos, a church historian and retired Miami Baptist pastor.

Apostolic Reformation pastor Gude Pérez was released from jail in April
after serving one-third of a six-year sentence for illicit economic
activity and falsification of documents, the report noted. The U.S.
government granted him asylum, but Cuban officials refuse to allow him
to leave the island.

Pastor Robert Rodriguez, who had been under house arrest since 2008, was
found not guilty of "offensive behavior" — his denomination's withdrawal
from the Council of Churches.

Other improvements in 2011, the report noted, included fewer reports of
confiscations, fines or evictions from "house churches" — private homes
used as temples — and increased opportunities to stage public
processions and receive aid from abroad.

Among its recommendations for U.S. policies, the panel noted that
Washington should push Cuba to end its violations of freedom of religion
"prior to considering resuming full diplomatic relations."

It also endorsed the U.S. Agency for International Development's
pro-democracy programs in Cuba, outlawed by the Cuban government as
designed to topple the communist system.

Washington should "use appropriated funds to advance Internet freedom
and protect Cuban activists from harassment and arrests by supporting
the development of new technologies … to counter censorship," the panel

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