Thursday, January 28, 2016

Cuba Attacks Christians As Washington Liberalizes Economic Ties

Cuba Attacks Christians As Washington Liberalizes Economic Ties
Doug Bandow

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

The Obama administration has continued its effort to expand contact
between the U.S. and Cuba by easing restrictions on travel, exports, and
export financing. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker spoke of "building a
more open and mutually beneficial relationship."

However, the administration expressed concern over Havana's dismal human
rights practices. Although Raul Castro's government has continued
economic reforms, it has maintained the Communist Party's political
stranglehold. Indeed, despite the warm reception given Pope Francis last
fall, the regime has been on the attack against Cubans of faith.

In a new report the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide warned of "an
unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum,"
which has "fueled a spike in reported violations of freedom of religion
or belief." There were 220 specific violations of religious liberties in
2014, but 2300 last year, many of which "involved entire churches or, in
the cases of arrests, dozens of victims." In contrast, there were only
40 cases in 2011.

Even in the best of times the Castros have never been friends of faith
in anything other than themselves. The State Department's 2014 report on
religious liberty reported that it was easier for Cubans to engage in
some charitable and educational projects and import Bibles. However,
"the government harassed outspoken religious leaders and their
followers, including reports of beating, threats, detentions, and
restrictions on travel. Religious leaders reported the government
tightened controls on financial resources."

Last year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was
similarly critical. The number of believers is growing, but the regime
attempts to closely control religious practices. The Commission
explained: "Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba,
despite improvements for government-approved religious groups." Never
mind the papal visit, "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."

Now CSW has issued its own report. There long has been discrimination
against Christians in employment, university, and primary/secondary
education. Communist Party members who convert and leave the party "face
particular discrimination," including threats made against them and
their families.

However, last year's increase in persecution "was largely due to the
government declaring 2000 Assemblies of God (AoG) churches illegal,
ordering the closure or demolition of 100 AoG churches in three
provinces, and expropriating the properties of a number of other
denominations, including the Methodist and Baptist Conventions." Indeed,
many church groups suffered at the Cuban government's hands. For
instance, Berean Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses were stripped of their
official registration, placing them outside of the law; the
Vetero-Catholic Church was prevented from registering. Noted CSW:
"Religious groups across the spectrum reported varying degrees of
hostility from the government."

This wide-ranging campaign was led by the Office of Religious Affairs.
Noted CSW: "In 2015, the ORA continued to deny authorization for a
number of religious activities and in cooperation with other government
agencies, issued fines and threats of confiscation to dozens of churches
and religious organizations. The ORA also sanctioned the arbitrary
expropriation of historic, registered church properties and the actions
against the AoG churches."

Through the ORA the Communist Party has been given general control over
religious activities. Indeed, reported CSW, the Office "exists solely to
monitor, hinder and restrict the activities of religious groups." It
often blocks church activities, building repairs, and clerical travel.
Last year the ORA worked with the Ministry of Housing to shut or destroy
churches. Religious officials argue that religious activities should
only be subject to government oversight, and only when there is a
demonstrated need. However, in the Castro regime's view, "need" is
entirely political.

The regime also has increasingly targeted church leaders and
congregants, for the first time in years jailing one of the former and
detaining many of the latter. In early January two churches were
destroyed, church members arrested, and three church leaders held
incommunicado. In some cases pastors' homes were surrounded, nearby
roads were blocked, cell phones were disrupted, and even children were
held captive.

One of the government's more odious practices, according to CSW, has
been to threaten churches with closure if they "do not comply with
government demands to expel and shun specific individuals." Failure to
surrender can result in sustained surveillance, pressure on congregants
to file complaints against church leaders, and approaches to
denominational leadership. This attempt to socially isolate believers
"has been utilized by the Cuban government since the earliest days of
the Revolution."

The government's repression has triggered public demonstrations. In
October hundreds of people marched in Santiago de Cuba, Contramaestre,
and Guantanamo to protest the planned destruction of an AoG church in
Santiago. Church members also organized a sit-in at the sanctuary.
Unfortunately, the regime apparently learned its lesson. In early
January the government initiated mass arrests and blocked phones in an
apparent attempt to preclude similar protests with the demolition of two
other churches.

The regime's destructive activities have been justified under a legal
decree issued last year for the nominal purpose of enforcing zoning
laws. But in practice the measure is a subterfuge to shut down churches.
Alas, there's no reason to believe that the regime plans to stop with
AoG sanctuaries. Noted CSW, legislation approved in 2005 "imposes
complicated and repressive restrictions on house churches, which likely
constitute the majority of churches in Cuba." While not consistently
implemented in the past, "church leaders have repeatedly expressed
concern at its potential to close down a large percentage of house

The Castros have ruled Cuba for more than a half century. They obviously
still fear losing control. CSW concluded that the ongoing crackdown was
an attempt to limit calls for social reform which would complement
ongoing, though limited, economic changes. Detentions initially were
concentrated on "Cubans considered by the government to be political
dissidents," including the Ladies in White movement, Catholic women who
protest by dressing in white and walking city streets, carrying
gladioli. The regime crackdown later "expanded to include other
individuals associated with independent civil society, including human
rights and democracy activists."

The Obama administration was right to engage Cuba. After more than 50
years, the embargo serves no useful purpose. Continuing this failed
policy will not bring freedom to the island in the future. However, even
lifting all economic restrictions isn't enough to turn Cuba into a
democracy. Only sustained pressure from within and without Cuba is
likely to force the Castro regime to yield control to the Cuban people.

Americans should forthrightly encourage freedom in Cuba. Religious
believers should be particularly vocal in supporting people seeking to
live out their faith under Communist oppression. Some day autocracy will
give way to liberty even in Cuba.

Source: Cuba Attacks Christians As Washington Liberalizes Economic Ties
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