The religious persecution on our doorstep
Today is Religious Freedom Day, an occasion to recognize the fundamental role that freedom of worship has occupied throughout American history and to reflect upon the millions around the world who do not enjoy this basic human right. At a time when religious persecution is on the rise worldwide, some of the most alarming restrictions are happening just 90 miles off our own coast.
Cuba’s communist regime has been animated by anti-religious ideology from its earliest days, with the Castro regime imprisoning, torturing and even murdering religious leaders. While believers in Cuba today may not be in quite as dangerous a situation as they were in the first few decades under communism, religious leaders and activists inside the country report an escalating campaign of religious persecution — the State Department has designated Cuba as a “Country of Particular Concern” as a result.
A recent survey by the Cuba Observatory of Human Rights paints a troubling picture of what life is like for people of faith in Cuba, for whom surveillance, internet censorship and restrictions on travel are regular occurrences. And as testimonies from independent faith leaders documented by the International Republican Institute show, the regime uses intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention of these leaders to curtail the influence of religious communities.
The exponential growth of evangelical Christian churches over the past three decades has occurred despite consistent persecution and surveillance by the state. According to evangelical pastor Alayn Toledano, the evangelical church is treated as a particular threat because “it is the most powerful and best organized entity that the Island of Cuba has at this moment.” According to Toledano, if the movement continues to grow, “the regime, which is already in decline, will suffer the collapse that we all expect.”
For Cuban Catholics, persecution has followed a different course over time given the church’s well-defined hierarchy and historical dominance on the island. In 1961, an estimated 300 priests and nuns were accused of “anti-revolutionary activities” and expelled from the country. When Fidel Castro changed the constitution to declare the country to be a “secular” rather than an “atheist” state in 1992, this provided a limited opening to Catholics seeking to practice their faith more openly, and for the Catholic Church to operate with relative independence.
Yet the supremacy of the state always takes precedence, and those who stray from this lesson find themselves at risk. According to Father Fernando Galvez, it is the teachings far more than the practice of the Catholic faith that most threaten the Cuban regime. “The priest can celebrate Mass, the nun can give catechism to children — but as soon as a moral application begins, comparing the evangelical message with the reality they are living, then we begin to notice injustices.” In this way, he notes, “religious freedom and political freedom are intimately mixed and cannot be separated.
It isn’t just the larger religious groups that are targeted by the Cuban state; even the relatively small Muslim population is kept under strict scrutiny. Life for Cuba’s Muslims improved somewhat following the official recognition of the Islamic League of Cuba in 2007, and the opening of the country’s sole authorized mosque in 2015. Yet this did not prevent persecution. An unofficial mosque was raided in 2017 and state security agents beat the Imam, and Muslims reportedly have been subjected to expulsion from workplaces and schools, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and violence. More recently, Abu Duyanah, president of the Cuban Association for the Dissemination of Islam, was prevented from making his pilgrimage to Mecca on the grounds of “public interest,” without providing any real justification.
America leads the world in advocacy for religious freedom, with bipartisan support for action to assist persecuted religious groups around the world. As we mark Religious Freedom Day, there are significant actions that the U.S. government could take to train a spotlight on persecution in Cuba and galvanize support for the island’s religious prisoners. In addition to enhanced support for efforts to expose and document religious persecution on the island and provide support to leaders working at the grassroots level, the Biden administration and Congress could use their platforms to call on the Cuban government to free Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, imprisoned in 2021 for participating in peaceful protests and reportedly severely beaten in custody.
U.S leaders also could highlight the malign role that Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) plays in the country, as the lead instrument of state persecution of religious believers. This has been well-documented by the United States Committee on International Religious Freedom, which has reported on how the ORA exercises direct and arbitrary control over the affairs of registered religious organizations, requiring permission for virtually any activity other than regular worship services.
Authoritarian regimes such as Cuba suppress religious freedom because of the power, strength and following that organizations of faith — no matter how big or small — represent, particularly at the community level. Religious persecution reflects the fundamental weakness of autocracies, which cannot abide the presence of movements and institutions that challenge their monopoly on truth. As a global leader on the cause of religious liberty and a beacon for so many, America must take the lead in highlighting the oppression at our own doorstep.
Antonio Garrastazu is the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide. Follow him on Twitter @GarrastazuTony.
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