While Americans celebrated Religious Freedom Day on January 16th, just 90 miles south of American shores, Cuba’s communist Castro dictatorship continues waging its 64-year-long war on religion.
The religious persecution on our doorstep
Today is Religious Freedom Day, an occasion to recognize the fundamental role that freedom of worship has occupied throughout American history and to reflect upon the millions around the world who do not enjoy this basic human right. At a time when religious persecution is on the rise worldwide, some of the most alarming restrictions are happening just 90 miles off our own coast.
Cuba’s communist regime has been animated by anti-religious ideology from its earliest days, with the Castro regime imprisoning, torturing and even murdering religious leaders. While believers in Cuba today may not be in quite as dangerous a situation as they were in the first few decades under communism, religious leaders and activists inside the country report an escalating campaign of religious persecution — the State Department has designated Cuba as a “Country of Particular Concern” as a result.
A recent survey by the Cuba Observatory of Human Rights paints a troubling picture of what life is like for people of faith in Cuba, for whom surveillance, internet censorship and restrictions on travel are regular occurrences. And as testimonies from independent faith leaders documented by the International Republican Institute show, the regime uses intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention of these leaders to curtail the influence of religious communities.
The exponential growth of evangelical Christian churches over the past three decades has occurred despite consistent persecution and surveillance by the state. According to evangelical pastor Alayn Toledano, the evangelical church is treated as a particular threat because “it is the most powerful and best organized entity that the Island of Cuba has at this moment.” According to Toledano, if the movement continues to grow, “the regime, which is already in decline, will suffer the collapse that we all expect.”
For Cuban Catholics, persecution has followed a different course over time given the church’s well-defined hierarchy and historical dominance on the island. In 1961, an estimated 300 priests and nuns were accused of “anti-revolutionary activities” and expelled from the country. When Fidel Castro changed the constitution to declare the country to be a “secular” rather than an “atheist” state in 1992, this provided a limited opening to Catholics seeking to practice their faith more openly, and for the Catholic Church to operate with relative independence.
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