Commissioner: Religious Liberty in 2018 ‘Deteriorated Dramatically’ in Cuba

Cuban pilgrims pray at Saint Lazarus Church in El Rincon, Havana, on July 2, 2018 - Saint Lazarus draws together Cuban interconfesional faith in a single figure, and the construction of a new chapel also shows the acceptance of the Catholic Church by the ruling Communist Party. (Photo by YAMIL …
YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2019 report on Monday, which found a steep decline in religious freedom in Cuba.

“I cannot finish these remarks without mentioning my homeland, Cuba,” Kristina Arriaga, co-chair of the commission, said during a panel discussion on the report. “My parents escaped Castro’s Cuba to live according to their deeply held religious convictions.”

“The situation in Cuba has deteriorated dramatically in this last year,” Arriaga said. “Just last week there were two Christian pastors whose only crime was wanting to raise their children according to their religion. Both of them were detained and imprisoned.”

“And a Christian lawyer who just came to attend the trial was beaten severely,” Arriaga said. “All the fingers on his right hand were broken and he is suffering deafness in one ear — just because the wanted to see what was going on.”

As Breitbart News reported: 

The Cuban communist regime sentenced Evangelical Pastor Ramón Rigal to two years in prison – and his wife Ayda Expósito to a year and half – on Monday for homeschooling their children, less than a week after their arrest for promoting the practice.

“The family … were given 30 minutes notice before the trial began on 18 April, and went on throughout the afternoon but was then suspended until Monday 22 April,” the aid group Christian Solidarity Worldwide said in a report on their story this week.

Homeschooling is illegal in Cuba, as it is considered a “capitalist” practice and prevents the state from indoctrinating children in Marxist atheism in public schools. Rigal has been homeschooling his children for years, forcing him into consistent confrontations with the Castro regime, and began helping other Christian families homeschool following his arrest in 2017.

The report’s portion on religious liberty in Cuba stated, in part:

During 2018, religious freedom conditions in Cuba trended the same, although some of the tactics employed by the Cuban government to repress religious freedom changed. Cuba continues to be a one-party system with no independent judicial bodies and where the state tightly controls religious institutions. After Fidel Castro’s death and Raúl Castro’s resignation as president, the Cuban Communist Party in April 2018 appointed Miguel Díaz-Canel to the presidency without an election. The change in leadership did not result in increased religious freedom. A new constitution, which was ratified after the reporting period, weakened protections for freedom of religion or belief. 

The government continued to use a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment to control religious groups. The Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), an entity within the Cuban Communist Party, arbitrarily controls all religious activity. The ORA requires religious organizations to register, which, in theory, allows communities to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply to travel abroad. However, the ORA can still arbitrarily interfere in any church matters—whether the church is registered or not. 

The Cuban government publicized the building of a Catholic Church in Sandino, which is the first new religious building that the government has allowed to be constructed in six decades. While this is overall a positive step, other religious groups have not been allowed to construct new religious buildings. Almost every Sunday in 2018, the government violently prevented members of the Ladies in White and other activists from attending Mass.

The commission also announced at the Monday event that it will be holding its second ministerial this year, following the first-ever ministerial last year that brought religious leaders from around the globe to Washington, DC, to discuss religious freedom and its importance to people everywhere.

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