1,400 Assemblies of God Churches Demolished, Confiscated by Cuba, Report Says

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro as they hold a bilateral meeting during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City April 11, 2015. Obama and Castro shook hands on Friday at the summit, a symbolically charged gesture as the pair seek to restore ties between the Cold War foes. | (Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst0

The U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide has recorded more than 1,600 religious freedom violations in Cuba in the first six months of this year, highlighting the communist government's crackdown of churches, especially the beginning of a process which involves confiscation of 1,400 Assemblies of God churches.

The violations include demolition and confiscation of church buildings, destruction of church property, arbitrary detention and other forms of harassment, particularly the confiscation and seizure of personal belongings of religious leaders, according to the report, which adds, "Over 1,000 Protestant churches are still under threat of confiscation and have not had their 'illegal' status overturned."

Since January 2016, the government has demolished four large churches linked to the Apostolic Movement, in three different parts of the country: in Camaguey and Santiago, and two in Las Tunas, the report says.

CSW found that each church demolition has followed a similar pattern: "police and state security agents block main roads surrounding the church, in many cases dragging pastors and their families out of bed in the very early hours of the morning, detaining them in separate police stations for the duration of the demolition."

The report notes that Legal Decree 322 remains in effect. The legislation was announced on Sept. 5, 2014 and came into effect on Jan. 5, 2015, and was supposedly established to regulate private properties and enforce zoning laws. "However, it has been and is being used by government officials to seize church properties."

In 2015 around 2,000 churches linked to the Assemblies of God denomination, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, were declared illegal by the government, the report says. At least 1400 of these church buildings, many of which are house churches, are "in the process of being expropriated by the government – despite the fact that the denomination has refused to sign the orders of confiscation."

The government had verbally promised early this year not to go ahead with the expropriation, but "neither the ORA nor the Ministry of Housing have made any effort to halt this process," the report adds.

"The government continues to employ arbitrary detention to target church leaders perceived as 'uncooperative', with nine such violations occurring since January 2016 (including those detained during demolitions)," it goes on to say.

"In one of the most serious cases, Reverend Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso was arrested on 20 March, just hours before US President Barack Obama arrived in Cuba on an official visit. Rev Lleonart Barroso's wife and two young daughters were placed under house arrest during the 55 hours he was held."

Government agents also continued to publicly harass and detain dozens of women across the country every week on their way to Sunday Mass. "These women, affiliated with the Ladies in White group, a non-violent human rights movement, are systematically detained on a weekly basis. In most cases they are violently dragged away by security agents as they leave their homes, or as they arrive at services," CSW says. "On most Sundays over 80 women are arrested. They are detained until Mass is concluded, after which many are dropped off in remote locations and left to find their own way home."

"CSW is alarmed by the escalation of FoRB violations throughout Cuba, but humbled and inspired by the courage and perseverance of the many religious communities who continue to peacefully resist government pressure," CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said. "We remain disappointed by the broken promises for reform on the part of the Cuban government and urge it to change course. We call on the international community and in particular the United Kingdom, European Union and the United States government to stand in solidarity with Cuban citizens by pressing the Cuban government to halt these repressive actions and ensuring that human rights, and in particular FoRB, remains a core component of any upcoming dialogues with the Cuban government."

Cuba has been governed by a one-party state ever since Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Of the roughly 11 million people in Cuba, an estimated 6 million are Christian. About 1 million of them are evangelicals. The actual number could be higher, as the church is growing fast.

Correction: The Assemblies of God issued a statement on Aug, 19 saying, "Cuba's church leaders confirm that no AG churches have been confiscated and a very positive relationship continues between Cuban AG churches and their communities."

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