Cuba Attacks Religious Believers Even As It Liberalizes Economic Rules

The Obama administration has been easing restrictions on travel, exports, and export financing. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker spoke of “building a more open and mutually beneficial relationship.”

However, the administration expressed concern over Havana’s dismal human rights practices. Despite the warm reception given Pope Francis last fall, the Castro regime has been on the attack against Cubans of faith.

In a new report the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide warned of “an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum,” which has “fueled a spike in reported violations of freedom of religion or belief.” There were 220 specific violations of religious liberties in 2014, but 2300 last year, many of which “involved entire churches or, in the cases of arrests, dozens of victims.”

Even in the best of times the Castros have never been friends of faith in anything other than themselves. The State Department’s 2014 report on religious liberty noted that “the government harassed outspoken religious leaders and their followers, including reports of beating, threats, detentions, and restrictions on travel. Religious leaders reported the government tightened controls on financial resources.”

Last year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was similarly critical. The Commission explained: “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups.” Never mind the papal visit, “the government continues to detain and harass religious leaders and laity, interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.”

Now CSW has issued its own report. Last year’s increase in persecution “was largely due to the government declaring 2000 Assemblies of God (AoG) churches illegal, ordering the closure or demolition of 100 AoG churches in three provinces, and expropriating the properties of a number of other denominations, including the Methodist and Baptist Conventions.”

This wide-ranging campaign was led by the Office of Religious Affairs. Noted CSW: “In 2015, the ORA continued to deny authorization for a number of religious activities and in cooperation with other government agencies, issued fines and threats of confiscation to dozens of churches and religious organizations.”

Through the ORA the Communist Party exercises control over religious activities. Indeed, reported CSW, the Office “exists solely to monitor, hinder and restrict the activities of religious groups.”

The regime also has increasingly targeted church leaders and congregants, for the first time in years jailing one of the former. In early January two churches were destroyed, church members arrested, and three church leaders held incommunicado. One of the government’s more odious practices, according to CSW, has been to threaten churches with closure if they “do not comply with government demands to expel and shun specific individuals.”

The regime’s destructive activities have been justified as enforcing zoning laws. But in practice the measure is a subterfuge to shut down churches.

Other legislation threatens house churches. While not consistently implemented in the past, “church leaders have repeatedly expressed concern at its potential to close down a large percentage of house churches.”

CSW concluded that the ongoing crackdown was an attempt to limit calls for social reform which would complement ongoing, though limited, economic changes. Detentions initially were concentrated on “Cubans considered by the government to be political dissidents,” including a group of Catholic women called the Ladies in White. The regime crackdown later “expanded to include other individuals associated with independent civil society, including human rights and democracy activists.”

The Obama administration was right to engage Cuba. After more than 50 years, the embargo serves no useful purpose.

However, even lifting all economic restrictions won’t turn Cuba into a democracy. Only sustained pressure from within and without Cuba is likely to force the Castro regime to yield control to the Cuban people.

As I wrote in Forbes: “Americans should forthrightly encourage freedom in Cuba. Religious believers should be particularly vocal in supporting people seeking to live out their faith under Communist oppression. Some day autocracy will give way to liberty even in Cuba.”