US panel on religious freedom reports Cuban violations

Miami HeraldMarch 21, 2012 

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 noted.

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