CubaBrief: Cuban Communist Party’s war on religion measured by destroyed churches, jailed pastors, and Jewish children barred from wearing their kippahs

CubaBrief on November 4, 2020 reproduced a report by The Christian Post dated November 2nd that in the city of Santiago de Cuba regime officials “demolished a church that has long been a target of the communist regime and arrested a pastor, [Alain Toledano], who streamed the demolition live on social media, a human rights group has reported.” Pastor Toledano was also able to get a photo of what was left of the Church afterwards.

"This is what was left of the property of the demolished Church in Santiago de Cuba"

“This is what was left of the property of the demolished Church in Santiago de Cuba”

This CubaBrief provides some additional details and context. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in their October 30, 2020 report, “Cuban State Security, accompanied by heavy machinery including bulldozers, arrived at the site [of the Church] at about 7:30am and began to attempt to clear the area located in the Abel Santamaria neighborhood of Santiago de Cuba. Witnesses told CSW that the authorities planned to demolish the Assemblies of God Church as well as the homes of members of the church located on the property. The Assemblies of God is one of the largest religious groups in Cuba and is legally recognized by the government.”

CSW also described in detail what happened to the Church’s pastor. “Pastor Alain Toledano, a prominent leader of an unregistered denomination, the Apostolic Movement, and who lives in the same neighborhood, went to the site to record the government attack on the church. He broadcast it on Facebook Live via his mobile phone. As he was filming, he was approached and physically apprehended by men in plainclothes. The phone was dropped on the ground and before the feed was cut, the sound of bulldozers can be heard as members of the church sing in the background.”

On Twitter Pastor Toledano denounced what had taken place day later on November 1, 2020 explaining that “the evil of demolishing another temple in Santiago de Cuba, a few meters from us, could not go unpunished. The world should know, and did learn about it. It cost us to be detained for more than eight hours, abused, beaten, threatened, but it had to be done, that is the price for freedom. Here I was detained.”

Pastor Toledano was held by regime officials for over eight hours and later released. In September 2020, CSW published a video interview with Pastor Alain Toledano that is embedded below.

Pastor Toledano was held by regime officials for over eight hours and later released. In September 2020, CSW published a video interview with Pastor Alain Toledano that is embedded below.

In the video, Pastor Toledano speaks plainly, stating “since 1959, when Fidel Castro entered government the ability of existing and future churches to be recorded in the Ministry of Justice register of association and worship has been abolished.” The good pastor is correct. In Cuba, under the Castros, religious freedom has been under assault for six decades.

In May 1961 the Cuban dictatorship confiscated private schools and most seminaries in an effort to eliminate religion.

Arnaldo Socorro Sánchez

Arnaldo Socorro Sánchez

On September 10, 1961 a catholic youth, Arnaldo Socorro, age 20 , was shot in the back by a member of the communist militia in front of the Church of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre in Havana as he carried an image of the Virgin of Charity. But in order to fool public opinion at the time, the regime buried him with the honors of a communist militant.

In September 1961, the Castro regime at gunpoint collected 131 priests, brothers and a bishop, placing them on board the Spanish ship Covadonga and deported them from Cuba. Many of the remaining priests were sent to forced labor camps. Over 300 priests, brothers, and nuns were expelled from Cuba in 1961 alone.

Cuban priests expelled from Cuba at gunpoint in 1961

Cuban priests expelled from Cuba at gunpoint in 1961

The Castro regime declared itself an atheist state in 1962, and openly hostile to religion. Christmas ended as a holiday in Cuba in 1969. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the dictatorship declared itself “secular” and Christmas returned to Cuba in 1997, but restrictions have continued.

Today, the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), an arm of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, still oversees religious affairs in Cuba, and exists to monitor, hinder and restrict religious activities. They also continue to demolish churches with bulldozers and organize mobs to harass Christians in acts of repudiation coordinated with the Ministry of the Interior.

In 2015 the dictatorship ordered that five churches in the Abel Santa Maria neighbourhood of the city of Santiago de Cuba. According to Christianity Today the order was issued on November 27, 2015 and pastors and their families, living on Church grounds, were evicted.

CSW reported on their blog on September 20, 2016 that “[i]n 2015 around 2,000 churches linked to the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination, the largest Protestant denomination in Cuba, were declared illegal by the government. 1,400 of these church buildings, many of which are house churches, are in the process of being expropriated by the government – despite the fact that the denomination has refused to sign the orders of confiscation. Although the government made verbal promises in early 2016 to the denominational leadership not to go ahead with the expropriation, neither the ORA nor the Ministry of Housing have made any effort to halt this process.”

The systematic assault on religious freedom does not end with the destruction of places of worship, but also infringes on the right of parents to choose what kind of education they want for their children, as recognized under Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Reverend Ramon Rigal, his wife Rev. Ayda Expósito and their two children.

Reverend Ramon Rigal, his wife Rev. Ayda Expósito and their two children.

Homeschooling, to avoid anti-Christian indoctrination taught in the schools, is prohibited in Cuba. Two Christian pastors were jailed for homeschooling their children, and an independent journalist was beaten and jailed for covering their trial in April 2019. Pastor  Ayda Expósito was released from prison nearly a year later on April 3, 2020, and her husband Pastor Ramón Rigal was released three months later on July 1, 2020.  Independent journalist Roberto Quiñones Haces was released on September 4, 2020 in an emaciated state, compared to when he entered prison on September 11, 2019.

The Center for a Free Cuba has joined efforts to highlight their plight and call attention to ongoing religious repression in Cuba today. This has meant joining with activists and picketing the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC, demanding the release of Ayda and Ramón, and we also met up with Roberto Quiñones Haces’s son to demand his freedom as well. The best defense for jailed dissidents is for international attention to be focused on their plight. This is why it is so important to speak up and protest.

Picketing at the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC for jailed pastors, and journalist jailed for covering their trial

Picketing at the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC for jailed pastors, and journalist jailed for covering their trial

Religious discrimination extends beyond Christian denominations. (CSW) on December 23, 2019 reported that Liusdan Martínez Lescaille, a twelve year-old Jewish boy was forbidden by Cuban educational authorities from entering his school while wearing a kippah ( also known as a yarmulke) since December 11, 2019 with the result that the child had been prevented from continuing his education. His younger brother, Daniel Moises, was also subjected to the ban and government authorities threatened to open legal proceedings against his parents (Olainis Tejada Beltrán and Yeliney Lescaille Prebal), jailing them and taking their children away, for “threatening the children’s normal development.”

Olainis Tejada Beltrán and Yeliney Lescaille Prebal, and their children Liusdan Martínez Lescaille, Daniel Moises

Olainis Tejada Beltrán and Yeliney Lescaille Prebal, and their children Liusdan Martínez Lescaille, Daniel Moises

The war on religious faith in Cuba in 2020 can be measured by destroyed churches, jailed pastors, and Jewish children banned from wearing their kippahs, and all is overseen and coordinated by the neutral sounding “Office of Religious Affairs (ORA)”, which in reality is an arm of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, whose ideology is actively hostile to religion.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, October 30, 2020

Cuban pastor arrested and church demolished

30 Oct 2020

Pastor Alain Toledano

Pastor Alain Toledano

Early on Friday morning, 30 October, Cuban authorities in the city of Santiago de Cuba moved to demolish a church that has been under threat since 2015. A prominent pastor of another church who was recording the demolition was detained by Cuban police and remains in custody.

Cuban State Security, accompanied by heavy machinery including bulldozers, arrived at the site at about 7:30am and began to attempt to clear the area located in the Abel Santamaria neighborhood of Santiago de Cuba. Witnesses told CSW that the authorities planned to demolish the Assemblies of God Church as well as the homes of members of the church located on the property. The Assemblies of God is one of the largest religious groups in Cuba and is legally recognized by the government.

Pastor Alain Toledano, a prominent leader of an unregistered denomination, the Apostolic Movement, and who lives in the same neighborhood, went to the site to record the government attack on the church. He broadcast it on Facebook Live via his mobile phone. As he was filming, he was approached and physically apprehended by men in plainclothes. The phone was dropped on the ground and before the feed was cut, the sound of bulldozers can be heard as members of the church sing in the background.

Pastor Toledano was taken by Cuban police to the Motorizada Police Station and has been held incommunicado since about 8am morning.

Cuban authorities claim that the church, which is under the leadership of Reverend Fausto Polemo, was to be demolished to make way for train tracks. CSW sources question this, noting that the church is the only building in the neighborhood that was destroyed. The church has long been a target of the government. 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 Reverend Polemo, held a peaceful sit-in in the building.  They also threatened to confiscate the homes of those living on the property in 2015.

Pastor Toledano has also been a regular target of the government since the beginning of his ministry in 2003. Over the past 15 years his church has been demolished twice. In 2019 he was put on the list of ‘regulados’, Cubans who are prohibited from traveling internationally, was summoned by the police dozens of times, and was warned a criminal case had been opened against him.  

CSW CEO, Scot Bower, said “CSW is deeply concerned at the events of this morning. We strongly condemn the demolition of the Assemblies of God Church and the eviction of church members. This church has been in the crosshairs of the Cuban government since 2015 and its arbitrary destruction is a serious violation of freedom of religion or belief. Pastor Alain Toledano’s actions this morning demonstrated cross-denominational solidarity and we commend his courage in bearing witness to government attacks on Reverend Fausto Polemo and the members of his church. We call on the Cuban authorities to immediately release Pastor Toledano and to cease its targeting of him and his family.” 

https://www.csw.org.uk/2020/10/30/press/4860/article.htm

The Global Liberty Alliance, November 2, 2020

ALERT: Church Demolished and Pastors Detained in Santiago de Cuba

11/2/2020

Early on Friday, October 30, 2020, an Assemblies of God church in Santiago de Cuba was demolished by order of the Cuban State, and Pastor Alain Toledano, who livestreamed the incident, was arrested and held in police custody for over five hours. The church’s pastor and his wife had already been detained.

GLA believes this to be yet another egregious offense against religious freedom in Cuba, part of regular repressive activity conducted by Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs and other cooperating agencies. Read our press release below.

https://www.globallibertyalliance.org/gla-news/church-demolished-detentions-santiago-de-cuba