Cuban authorities destroy church, arrest pastor who filmed demolition

Worshipers attend the inaugural mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Sandino, Cuba on Jan. 26, 2019.
Worshipers attend the inaugural mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Sandino, Cuba on Jan. 26, 2019. | PHOTO: DIOCESE OF ST. PETERSBURG

Authorities in the city of Santiago de Cuba demolished a church that has long been a target of the communist regime and arrested a pastor who streamed the demolition live on social media, a human rights group has reported. 

According to the London-based nonprofit Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Cuban State Security brought heavy machinery and bulldozers to the Assemblies of God Church in the Abel Santamaria neighborhood of Santiago de Cuba last Friday and destroyed the church.

CSW added that the church has been under threat since 2015 even though the denomination is one of the largest religious groups in Cuba and is legally recognized by the government.

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Pastor Alain Toledano who lives in the same neighborhood and pastors another church recorded the government attack on the church and broadcast it on Facebook Live through his mobile phone.

However, he dropped the phone on the ground as he was approached by men wearing plainclothes. As the video feed was cut, the sound of bulldozers could be heard as members of the church sang in the background.

Cuban police then took Toledano, a leader of the unregistered denomination the Apostolic Movement, to the Motorizada Police Station. According to CSW's report Friday, he is being kept incommunicado.

Cuban authorities have claimed that the demolition was for the construction of train tracks on the site, but CSW sources said the church was the only building in the neighborhood that was destroyed.

“Officials at the Cuban Physical Planning and Housing Departments first attempted to demolish the church in 2015 but backed off after members of the church and other denominations, led by Rev. Fausto Palomo, held a peaceful sit-in in the building,” CSW's report noted. “They also threatened to confiscate the homes of those living on the property in 2015.”

Pastor Toledano’s actions “demonstrated cross-denominational solidarity and we commend his courage in bearing witness to government attacks on Reverend Fausto Palomo and the members of his church,” CSW CEO Scot Bower said. “We call on the Cuban authorities to immediately release Pastor Toledano and to cease its targeting of him and his family.” 

In July, Cuba released Pastor Ramon Rigal, who spent over a year in prison for homeschooling his children, according to a statement by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent and bipartisan panel of experts that advises Congress and the federal government.

Rigal, who was arrested with his wife, Ayda Expósito, in April 2019, was serving a two-year term and was previously scheduled to be released in 2021. Although it’s unclear why he was granted early release, it came as the government had released thousands of prisoners in previous months to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Last December, the U.S. State Department placed Cuba on its “special watch list” of countries that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom. 

In a March report, USCIRF detailed how Cuban authorities manipulated the legal system to “wage persistent harassment” against religious leaders. The panel also voiced concerns over the denial of religious freedom for human rights activists and journalists.

CSW notes that Toledano has also been a target of the government since his ministry began in 2003. And over the past 15 years, his church was demolished twice. Toledano was put on a government list of Cubans who are prohibited from leaving the country. 

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