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Cuban churches feel pressure from government to stifle dissent

Posted on Sat, Dec. 09, 2006

Cuban churches feel pressure from government to stifle dissent
A Cuban pastor went on trial this week for alleged immigrant smuggling,
but activists say it highlights a curb on religious freedom.

Carlos Lamelas, a Cuban evangelical pastor who spoke up about religious
freedom on the island, first found himself booted from his church, and
then jailed.

But the former Church of God president does not stand accused of
political dissent or other counter-revolutionary activities. His alleged
crime: human trafficking.

Lamelas went on trial this week for allegedly smuggling people out of
the island, and if found guilty faces nine years in prison.

”Persecution of pastors is subtle,” said Alexandri Sosa, a pastor who
left Cuba this summer after having problems with the government. “The
methods have changed. So if a wall collapses and you rebuild it, you go
to jail for illegal construction.”


Experts say the Lamelas case illustrates the pressure on religious
leaders to cooperate with Cuba’s Council of Churches, a coalition of
Protestant denominations close to the government. It also underscores
the tightrope pastors in Cuba walk in their quest to avoid politics and
hold on to their congregations.

Christian activist groups have launched an Internet campaign publicizing
Lamelas’ case, highlighting it as an example of a wider move to restrict
religious freedom in Cuba. While Cuba closes unlicensed churches
nationwide, church groups say pastors are being singled out for harassment.


Last year, Pastor Manuel Jesús Rosado Arencibia, of Remanente de Dios
church in Matanzas, was jailed after distributing evangelical leaflets.

A Roman Catholic Church layman, an agronomist who edits the religious
magazine Vitral, which runs articles that criticize the government, lost
his job as president of a state tobacco company when he refused a
government plea to give up the magazine. He now spends eight hours a day
in a shed, guarding palm tree stalks used to make cigar boxes, The
Associated Press reported.

Pastors are by no means being targeted in a crackdown, and pastors
acknowledge that the pressure they get is a far cry from the early days
of Castro’s revolution, when more than 100 priests were expelled from
Cuba for allegedly working against the government. Other religious
leaders were interned in work camps called UMAPs, Military Units to Help

The Cuban government was officially atheist until 1992.

”Pastors are marginalized,” said Rev. Efraín Reyes, who moved to South
Florida after his release from the UMAP. “Everyone tries to keep his
mouth shut. They can get into big problems. You never know who is

Lamelas resisted government interference in church affairs, and refused
to sign a pledge to the government since he became president of his
denomination’s general assembly in 2004, said a spokeswoman for
Christian Solidarity Network, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to
not jeopardize future trips to the island.

After two detentions, Lamelas was arrested in February after police
searched his home, confiscating his computer and office equipment. He
spent four months in jail, and is now awaiting the outcome of his trial
at home.


In a brief telephone interview, Lamelas said his trial went well and
that even the prosecutor told the judge there was no evidence to support
the charges that he helped people flee Cuba.

Churches sometimes provide ”invitation letters” for its members to
travel abroad, and fakes have been known to circulate on the black
market. But Lamelas denied involvement.

”I had nothing to do with that,” he said, declining to discuss his
case further. “It’s not very easy to talk on the phone.”

Pastors say the Cuban government is cautious of religious leaders
because of their ability to congregate with — and preach to — so many
people each week. The church is among the few entities not directly
controlled by the communist government, so officials try to monitor
members of the clergy.


The government is also suspicious of the close ties the ministers often
have with Protestant churches in the United States. While those
relationships often bring much-needed aid to Cuba, the government is
wary of more conservative churches’ influence on their Cuban counterparts.

The Cuban government wields tremendous leverage over the pastors, as
they must turn to the government to get much-needed, but rarely given,
permission to build churches.

Sosa, now in Europe, said the Cuban government generally avoids creating
martyrs by jailing pastors. When he was having run-ins with the
government for speaking out on mundane issues, he started getting
warning notes in his weekly offerings basket.

”The pastor is a person who speaks to 150 people every Sunday,” he
said in a telephone interview. “The government has to control that.”


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