Cuban Christians’ religious freedom cry comes as pastor lingers in jail

LAS TUNAS, Cuba (BP) — The Alliance of Christians in Cuba (ACC) denounced the country’s human rights and religious freedom violations at its 2024 meeting, the third time it has done so since its 2022 founding and the latest in a string of such statements internationally.

The ACC, a multi-denominational group of about 60 Christian leaders, called for the immediate release of religious prisoners and prisoners of conscience, the protected legal right for new churches to organize and function, and other rights included in Article 18 of the International Bill of Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba signed in 1948.

“We demand that the Cuban government respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which it is a signatory, and that it integrates the treaties on civil and political liberties that offer a legal framework for respect for the fundamental freedoms of human beings,” ACA included in its statement.

“This implies the immediate release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who remain in the island’s prisons today, and the immediate cessation of the application of pre-criminal judicial processes,” the ACC wrote, “because they directly violate the international right to the presumption of innocence, a right that is mentioned in the current constitution of the Republic of Cuba.”

The statement follows international calls for the release of evangelical pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, wrongfully imprisoned since July 2021, isolated from family and reportedly tortured for participating in widespread peaceful protests criticizing the government’s human rights violations, food shortages and the lack of medical supplies. Fajardo is pastor of Monte de Sion Independent Church.

The U.S. State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA) — an eight nation group including the U.S., are among government groups advocating for Fajardo’s release and promoting religious liberty in Cuba. International Christian Concern and CSW are among nongovernmental groups doing the same.

“We strongly urge the Cuban authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo and permit him to freely return to his pastoral work in Cuba,” IRFBA said in its statement signed by the U.S., Estonia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Romania, Taiwan and the Czech Republic. “We moreover call upon Cuba to uphold freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression and call for the release of all those arbitrarily detained after the 11 July protests in 2021.”

Fajardo, imprisoned on erroneous charges of disrespect, assault, criminal incitement and public disorder, is serving a seven-year prison term, has suffered gross humiliations and was isolated after sharing the gospel with fellow prisoners.

Names and religious denominations of members of the ACC are concealed for security, but CSW (formerly Christian Solidarity Worldwide) told Baptist Press at least two members of the group are Baptist pastors. ACC members signed on behalf of the ACC, their churches and the Cuban people in general, the ACC said in the statement issued “after democratic debate.”

Respect for women, the end of femicide and human slavery, and the establishment of living wages for women that would deter prostitution were also among the rights specified in the statement released June 28 at the end of the alliance’s meeting.

Religious persecution is increasing in Cuba, advocates report, with the government passing laws to facilitate the persecution of religious leaders and laypersons accused of opposing Cuba Communist Party ideology. CSW counted 657 religious freedom violations in Cuba in 2022, compared to 272 the previous year, the U.S. State Department said in its latest report on international religious freedom.

Arrests, exile, arbitrary fines, physical and mental abuse, restricted freedom of movement, surveillance and denials of licenses are among tactics the government employs.

Since 2022, the U.S. State Department has designated Cuba a country of particular concern for systemic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations. Religious freedom advocate Open Doors ranks Cuba 22nd among the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted.

Fajardo is among several religious and freedom of conscience prisoners in Cuba, including 11 listed on USCIRF’s Frank R. Wolf Freedom of Religion or Belief Victims list. USCIRF includes Fajardo among six Protestant and five Santeria leaders imprisoned in Cuba. Santeria, Yoruba-linked groups that adhere to the Order of Lucumi or Orisha worship, are numerous in Cuba.

With no authoritative source for the religious demography of Cuba, the U.S. State Department cites estimates from various sources in its 2024 report that about 5% of Cuba’s 11 million people (550,000) are Protestant, including 100,000 Baptists, 150,000 Assemblies of God members and other groups including Jehovah Witnesses, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and others.

Most Cubans, about 60%, are estimated to be Catholic, as well as several groups that incorporate Catholic rites and beliefs.

ACA’s full statement is available here.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)

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