By Martin Surridge – Article18 is back, now that I’ve returned from my vacation in sunny California and coincidentally, this week’s entry, as well as the last few articles, focus on some of the more warmer countries around the world-warm in climate that is, not so much in temperament. Like the classic American cars that drive up and down Havana’s hot streets, communist Cuba is a country from another era-Cold War isolationism, a American trade embargo that began fifty years ago, and a pair of aging dictator-brothers who have ruled the nation and restricted its freedom for decades. But while Cuba may be living in the past in many respects, its religious freedoms are a curious blend of old-fashioned totalitarian crackdown and modern globalist acquiescence.
This is Article18-RLTV’s weekly blog specifically dedicated to religious liberty issues in other countries around the world. Each week, we focus on a different nation, and the struggles facing one of its religious communities. This week:Cuba, a nation that is struggling to adapt to a changing world, where Protestant pastors have been interrogated by law enforcement and the Roman Catholic church is improving relations with the Cuban government and helping to increase religious liberty on the island.
Jorge Pubillones was born and raised a Christian in Cuba and now works for a paratransit service in Cobb County, Georgia. He left Cuba in 1964 with his family and relocated to New York City, and then Miami, after his family felt that the revolution threatened to “destroy life as [they] knew it.” He explained that the expulsion of priests and takeover of private businesses played a significant role in their decision as did the imprisonment of one of their pastors.
I spoke to Jorge Pubillones and asked him about the importance of religious liberty in Cuba and what the future might hold for the Caribbean nation, especially in light of recent decision that the United States has made, placing Cuba on a watch list of religious liberty violators, along with countries like Afghanistan and Somalia.
“The world [should] take notice of what is going on in Cuba,” Pubillones shared. “Personally, my dad had friends that were tortured until they died for refusing to compromise their beliefs. I totally agree with the decision.”
One of the reasons that Cuba was placed on the watch list was because of actions similar to what happened to three Protestant pastors in May. The three ministers, who are affiliated with a church network in Cuba called the Apostolic Movement, were questioned and interrogated by Cuban officials, trying to stop them from holding church services in their homes. The Apostolic Movement has been under pressure from the communist government for several years and that part of the scrutiny the group faces is “because its members continue to report religious liberty violations in Cuba to international human rights groups and the media.”
Pubillones explained that in Cuba, “religious freedom has to be the biggest issue because once you allow it everything else follows. When a person has the right to choose what to believe he/she is empowered to make other life changing choices.”
It’s a view that the Roman Catholic church in Havana seems to agree with. While Christianity is certainly not outlawed as it used to be in other communist nations, the Catholic church in Cuba has frequently struggled to find its place in Cuba, often facing repression and periods of forced labor at the hands of Castro’s totalitarian regime.
According to the Omaha World Herald, “Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino said his mediation between the Cuban government and political prisoners’ families has led to the release of 126 prisoners of conscience in the past year. He said that would not have been possible before Raul Castro’s elevation as the successor to his brother Fidel as Cuba’s leader.”
Cardinal Ortega pointed to other “signs of increasing religious liberty [including] the ability to distribute religious publications, the ability of students and clergy to study abroad and the opening last year of a new Cuban seminary.” Even the Jewish communities in Cuba, which were once subject to a difficult life under Castro’s government, have blossomed in comparison to their pre-1992 status. Many Jews in Havana, according to newvoices.org, are now able to practice their religion “free of fear or hate,” which once would have been hard to believe.
There are high hopes that the actions of Roman Catholic church, along with the recent ascension of Raul Castro and Cuba’s gradual emergence from global isolationism will be accompanied by an increase in religious liberty for its citizens. In March, President Obama even reduced “limits on religious travel to the island nation” as part of a continued effort to bring Cuba back into the international community. There might be good news in the future for Cuba after all.
“When a person chooses to let God be in charge and that decision is permitted to be pursued openly and freely, lives and governments are changed,” Pubillones said. “The hope, as with all of us is to trust in God and know that He is in control. Continue to pray that lives will be changed and people that have no hope will realize that there is hope in God. When change will happen I do not know. Why this regime has lasted so long I can only wonder. The Lord is in control, we have to trust him.”
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