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Cuba

Religious freedom violations increase in 2019 as constitutional protections weakened

13 Jan 2020

In a new report released today, CSW reveals that the Cuban government’s approach to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) has continued to deteriorate and attributes this both to weakened protections for the right under the country’s new constitution, adopted in early 2019, as well as a repressive government response to the launch of the Cuban Evangelical Alliance, which brought together the largest Protestant denominations on the island.

CSW received 260 documented violations of FoRB in 2019, compared to 151 in 2018. The figures are not exhaustive but serve as an indicator and reflect the experiences of a range of religious groups across the island. Recorded violations include harassment of religious leaders, arbitrary detention, confiscation of religious property, the forced closure of churches, and restrictions on travel, movement and the distribution of religious materials. The government targeted some of those responsible for the first hand documentation of FoRB violations, for example arbitrarily detaining Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre in July for 10 days and in November for 29 hours and subjecting him to intense interrogation.

The report also reveals a pattern of discrimination in education against children belonging to religious groups, who are either targeted because of their own faith or because of the faith of their parents: “Acts of discrimination can be severe, including teachers or school administrators encouraging or even organising verbal and sometimes physical attacks on religious students.” In late 2019, two brothers belonging to the Bnei Anusim Jewish community were banned from entering their schools unless they removed their kippot.

2019 saw some positive developments, particularly within Cuba’s religious sector. In June 2019 seven Protestant denominations on the island, including the five largest in terms of membership, launched the Cuban Alliance of Evangelical Churches in a show of inter-denominational unity unseen since the 1959 Revolution. The government responded by blocking the leaders of the founding denominations from traveling outside of Cuba and summoned them and others involved in the formation of the alliance in for repeat interrogations over the latter half of the year.

The main perpetrator of the FoRB violations is the Cuban government’s Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), which has the authority to regulate religious affairs on the island. The report states: “The wording of the new constitution indicates that the government has no plans to improve FoRB or freedom of conscience, but rather is looking to tighten its grip on religious groups and religious expression.”

In December 2019, the United States State Department announced that Cuba had been added to the Special Watchlist for governments that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” CSW’s report concludes: “It is critical to the future of FoRB in Cuba that the international community supports these efforts, both by promoting respect for FoRB in all bilateral and multilateral discussions with the government, and by responding strongly to all cases of FoRB violations, including the targeting of religious leaders involved in the promotion of FoRB and efforts at building cross-denominational alliances.”

CSW’s Head of Advocacy Anna-Lee Stangl said: “This new report demonstrates that the situation for all religious groups in Cuba remains dire, and that the Cuban government is the primary perpetrator of violations against them. However, there remains some cause for hope as demonstrated by the formation of the Cuban Alliance of Evangelical Churches and the increasing number of Cubans who are documenting and speaking out on FoRB violations despite the potential repercussions. The international community must do everything in its power to support FoRB defenders as well as efforts to promote more unity and cooperation among different religious groups, as well as other efforts to defend the right to FoRB in Cuba, including by raising the cases contained in this report at every opportunity.”

Note to Editors:

1.       The Cuban Evangelical Alliance is a member of the World Evangelical Alliance, a recognised network of churches in 129 nations which holds Special Consultative Status in the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC).

2.       Click here to read the full report.

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