A Protestant pastor has reportedly been sentenced to eight years in prison for participating in peaceful protests against Cuba’s communist regime, bringing renewed attention to the government’s harsh crackdown on religious activities and peaceful demonstrations.
Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo was detained without trial for over two months following protests in Cuba last summer, which were said to be the largest in decades amid ongoing shortages of medicine and food during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Kingdom-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide recently reported that the Cuban government notified the United Nations in March that Rosales Fajardo, a pastor for 20 years who leads the nondenominational Monte de Sion church in Palma Soriano, was sentenced to eight years in prison for charges including “disrespect” and “public disorder."
The sentencing occurred in late December. However, the government's March letter in response to a joint communication from five U.N. special procedures states that the "parties" had not been notified of the sentencing, according to CSW.
In the letter, Cuban government officials reportedly claimed Rosales Fajardo does not belong to a “recognized church." The government also claims that Rosales Fajardo was part of a violent attack on the Cuban Communist Party headquarters in Palma Soriano last July that left several Black "agents of order" and one civilian wounded.
Video and images from the incident, however, showed agents from the Black Beret paramilitary force attacking unarmed protesters and Rosales Fajardo being held in a chokehold, according to CSW.
CSW’s Head of Advocacy Anna Lee Stangl said international efforts to free the pastor continue even amid what appears to be a much broader crackdown against Christians and pro-democracy and pro-reform movements.
“We have had numerous reports of Christian leaders being summoned by state security, interrogated and threatened, with some being forced into exile,” Stangl told The Christian Post.
One recent report involved a Christian couple who are high-profile pastors in the Las Tunas region. The couple was summoned, interrogated and threatened for six hours, according to Stangl, because of their involvement in organizing a prayer service for political prisoners and highlighting the case of Rosales Fajardo, whose wife was also threatened.
“These crude intimidation tactics demonstrate how much the Cuban government fears the influence of Christian leaders and ironically, considering the atheistic ideology held by most Cuban Communist Party officials, their recognition of the power of prayer,” said Stangl.
The Cuban government has long scrutinized the island’s religious groups — the vast majority of which are Christians — due to their ability to mobilize large groups of people. Stangl thinks public statements made last year by Christian leaders and other religious groups condemning the government’s actions may have antagonized the government’s stance toward Christians.
“The number of explicit statements from religious leaders and groups in the second half of 2021, condemning the government's use of violence against peaceful protesters and affirming the fundamental right to protest peacefully, was something we have not seen since 1959, and marked what many thought might be a new era in terms of religious groups' willingness to speak out publicly despite government threats,” she said.
But since then, Stangl says the government has released a number of new draft laws for public consultation, many of which have drawn criticism from Christian leaders.
That trend could indicate their willingness to speak out will not fade even if they are subject to “continued intimidation tactics.”
“The government, under the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party, seems to be intent on taking the country backwards to a more repressive and controlling system,” she said. “However, many Christian leaders appear to be just as resolute that they will not accept this.”
The Madrid-based watchdog group Prisoners Defenders warned last December that the number of political prisoners in Cuba increased five-fold in 2021 as the government cracked down on protesters demonstrating for various reasons, including a shortage of medicine and food during the pandemic.
The U.S. State Department has placed Cuba on its "Special Watch List" of countries with severe violations of religious freedom.
The Christian persecution watchdog ministry Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, ranks Cuba as the 37th-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on its annual World Watch List. The organization warns that religious freedom conditions in the country continue to worsen.
"The continued rise is the result of highly restrictive measures against churches deemed to be opponents of the regime — especially non-registered Protestant churches," an Open Doors fact sheet states. "The COVID-19 crisis has been used as a pretext to hinder church and community activities, monitor church leaders, make arbitrary arrests, confiscate private property and impose extortion fees. Christian leaders from different denominations were among those arrested during anti-government demonstrations in July."