Over 600 religious freedom violations in Cuba in 2023: report

Cubans are seen outside Havana’s Capitol during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. – Thousands of Cubans took part in rare protests Sunday against the communist government, marching through a town chanting “Down with the dictatorship” and “We want liberty.” | YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

The crackdown on religious freedom continues in Cuba following July 2021 protests as a new persecution watchdog report tallies 622 documented religious freedom violations in 2023 amid a return to “hardline tactics.” 

The Caribbean island maintained a high level of incidents similar to the 657 cases reported in 2022 and maintained a significant increase from the 272 cases reported in 2021 by the United Kingdom-based organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

CSW’s March 2024 report titled “Repression and resistance — a return to hardline tactics” highlights repressive legislation and systematic human rights violations that have impacted religious leaders and congregations across various faiths, including Afro-Cuban groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Get Our Latest News for FREE

Subscribe to get daily/weekly email with the top stories (plus special offers!) from The Christian Post. Be the first to know.

The communist Cuban government, following the protests on July 11, 2021, intensified its repressive measures, targeting religious groups and leaders with increasingly harsh legislation. Both registered and unregistered religious associations are subjected to intrusive surveillance, repeated interrogations and threats aimed at stifling their religious activities.

“The government continued to be particularly focused on targeting religious leaders and individuals who offered spiritual or material support to families of political prisoners,” the report states. “Religious leaders and their congregations who attempted to respond to humanitarian needs, which have become increasingly acute in many parts of the island, were harassed, fined, and, in many cases, saw the aid they were attempting to distribute confiscated.”

Among the several rights violations highlighted in the report were religious leaders being threatened and pressured to expel family members of political prisoners from their congregations as part of a “policy of social isolation.” Political prisoners were denied religious visits or the right to receive religious materials. Children were subjected to verbal abuse at school “because of their religious beliefs.” Leaders of unregistered religious groups faced harassment, threats and fines. 

“Those considered by the government to be dissidents were repeatedly and systematically blocked from attending religious services, usually through short term arbitrary detention,” the report adds. “The emigration wave showed no sign of diminishing, with many of those who left Cuba citing threats of imprisonment and loss of custody of their children to the State.”

The report says that religious leaders and congregations that offer support to families of political prisoners or engage in humanitarian efforts have encountered significant obstacles that have severely impacted their ability to serve the community’s needs.

Unregistered religious groups have borne the brunt of the government’s tactics, facing regular harassment and threats of fines.

“I told them that I belong to a Christian, not a counter-revolutionary church. I am a believer in God and a follower of Christ. I do not belong to a counter-revolutionary alliance, but an alliance-building unity among pastors who support one another in order to serve, with greater excellence, the Cuban island,” an unnamed religious leader told CSW researchers. 

“I told them that they can do with me whatever they want, but I will not stop attending church. I will give the same treatment to Christians of any denomination, as I would to any citizen, communist or not. I told them that if they want to take away my rights for having provided … services, or going to church, so be it.”

The government’s strategy extends beyond mere repression, using social isolation and short-term arbitrary detention, which has led to a notable emigration wave as Cubans flee the island, citing threats of imprisonment and coercive measures against their families.

The July 2021 protests marked a significant moment in the nation’s recent history, as thousands of Cubans took to the streets in various cities to express their frustration with the government’s handling of the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of political freedoms.

Sparked by critical shortages of food, medicine and other essentials, along with prolonged power outages, the demonstrations were among the largest and most widespread on the island in decades. Protestors chanted slogans like “Freedom!” and “Down with the dictatorship!” facing strong responses from the government, which deployed police and military forces to quell the unrest.

In Cuba, the government is the primary persecutor of Christians, viewing any potential rival to the Cuba Communist Party, including the Christian faith, as a threat, reports the watchdog Open Doors. Church leaders or believers who criticize human rights abuses or political corruption risk interrogation, arrest, smear campaigns and imprisonment.

Churches must register to operate legally, but the government may deny or ignore these applications, forcing churches to function illicitly and risk closure or penalties like fines and property confiscation. Even registered churches face intense scrutiny and monitoring, with infiltration by regime sympathizers or state security agents.

According to CSW, Cuba created a new government Department for Attention to Religious Institutions and Fraternal Groups in 2022. But religious leaders told CSW that most “business continues to be conducted by the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), which maintains a consistently antagonistic relationship with religious groups.”

While churches in Cuba can hold services, government tolerance can abruptly end if a leader or member is perceived as anti-government, according to Open Doors. Those leading unregistered churches or openly challenging the regime are especially vulnerable to persecution.

Recommendations for the Cuban government include amending the constitution and legal frameworks to enhance protections for freedom of religion or belief, ratifying international human rights treaties and ceasing the harassment and threats against religious leaders and human rights advocates.

CSW urged international bodies to monitor the situation closely, hold the Cuban government accountable for its actions and support the Cuban civil society and religious groups facing persecution.

Cuba is listed by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom. This list also includes some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, including but not limited to China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Burma.

In December, the World Council of Churches General Secretary Rev. Prof. Jerry Pillay met with Cuba President Miguel Díaz-Canel and praised Cuba’s religious freedom, citing meetings with the Presbyterian Church in Cuba and other churches.

His comments were criticized by religious freedom advocates, including Teo Babun, president and CEO of Outreach Aid to the Americas.

“It troubles me that it seems your visit, apparently closely orchestrated by the Cuban government, has failed to provide you an accurate understanding of the state of the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief in Cuba,” Babun wrote in a letter. “Worse, we are seeing that the Cuban government is using your visit, and specifically your statements celebrating religious freedom in Cuba, to bolster its absurd claim that Cubans do enjoy this fundamental freedom.”

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *