Pastor Ramon Rigal, of the Church of God in Cuba, was informed by government officials in Guantanamo Province on 31 July that he is no longer permitted to work as a church leader. Instead, the pastor, who is being punished for deciding to home-school his children, has been assigned a new job checking for mosquitoes in the water supply of local houses.
Pastor Ramon Rigal and his wife decided to home-school their children because they felt that state school teaching emphasised a Marxist-Leninist atheist ideology which conflicted with their Christian faith. Pastor Rigal’s daughter had also reported being bullied at school and punched in the stomach by another student.
On 25 April, Pastor Rigal was sentenced to one year in a correctional facility, while his wife was sentenced to one year of house arrest. However, the State reduced the pastor’s sentence to house arrest on 6 July on the provision that his children return to state school in September. He has since been told that he cannot work as a pastor.
Pastor Ramon Rigal’s case is one of several brought to the attention of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in recent months, in which family members of church leaders and activists are singled out for harassment and discrimination by the authorities. This is a longstanding tactic of the government to ratchet up the pressure on church leaders and activists who are considered a ‘problem’. Further details can be found in CSW’s new report on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba.
CSW’s Senior Advocacy Officer for the Americas, Anna Lee Stangl, said, “The punishment meted out to Pastor Ramon Rigal and his wife is unwarranted and places the family in undue hardship. We call on the Cuban authorities to repeal the sentences against the pastor and his wife, and to allow him to continue his work as a church leader.”
According to CSW’s report, the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016 failed to lead to any significant improvements to FoRB in Cuba; instead, the arbitrary detention, harassment, restriction and surveillance of religious leaders and adherents has continued throughout the first half of 2017, as has the confiscation of church properties. Christians across a wide range of denominations have been affected, including members of the Roman Catholic Church, the Apostolic Movement, the East and West Baptist Conventions, the Evangelical League and Assemblies of God.
In one improvement, in May 2017, the head of the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination received verbal assurances from government officials that the 2,000 churches which were declared illegal in 2015 will no longer be confiscated. While CSW is tentatively considering this to be a positive development, AoG leaders pointed out that it is dependent on implementation and should be closely monitored.
To date in 2017, CSW has recorded 185 separate violations of FoRB in Cuba, with many of these cases involving large numbers of victims. This is markedly fewer than the numbers recorded in 2015 and 2016, given that the 2,000 Assemblies of God churches are reportedly no longer at risk of confiscation. However, should violations continue to be recorded at a similar rate over the next five months, 2017 will represent the third highest number of FoRB violations recorded in any year of the current decade.
One pastor told CSW that the church is currently experiencing “the most savage of witch hunts” since the revolution. CSW has noted that attacks on FoRB defenders have increased both in number and severity. For example, Felix Yuniel Llerena Lopez, who is affiliated with the Patmos Institute, which promotes inter-religious dialogue and FoRB in Cuba, has had trumped-up criminal charges brought against him and is no longer allowed to travel outside his village. Llerena Lopez was expelled from university in May after returning from a visit to Washington, DC where he raised FoRB concerns with US Congressional staffers, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and the State Department.
Throughout 2017, state security and political police have also continued to arrest members of the Ladies in White movement in order to prevent them from attending Sunday Mass. These arrests are often violent, and women are regularly threatened and fined. The report notes several arrests of particular concern, such as that of Daisy Artilles del Sol, a 52 year old woman with breast cancer, who was violently arrested on 9 July and not released for four days.
“It should alarm the international community that despite promises of greater freedom for the Cuban people as the country develops its relationships with the US and EU, that the repression of religious communities continues unabated. We continue to call for reforms to the Office of Religious Affairs, which is the main perpetrator of religious freedom violations, and for the authorities to cease targeting church leaders, activists and their families simply for speaking up about the injustices faced by their fellow citizens. Human rights, and particularly religious freedom, must remain a priority in any dialogues between the US, EU and the Cuban government,’’ Anna Lee Stangl added.