CubaBrief: Religious freedom and Martin Luther King Jr. have special meaning for free Cubans.

This year, on January 16, 2023, Religious Freedom Day coincides with  Martin Luther King Day in the United States.

Religious freedom and Martin Luther King Jr. have special meaning for free Cubans.

To begin, Antonio Garrastazu of the International Republican Institute highlights Cuba’s ongoing religious repression in an OpEd published in The Hill today that focuses on persecution against Christians. and Muslims. Cubans have been subjected to religious persecution by a hostile dictatorship for over 64 years. In addition to Christians and Muslims, Cuban Jews have been especially targeted, and demonized in the official press, and Jewish children harassed for wearing kippahs in school.

Jewish children barred by Castro’s educational authorities from wearing kippahs in school.

Seth J. Frantzman, a Jewish academic based in Jerusalem, following the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016 wrote an analysis of the tyrant’s antisemitism. “Most Jews fled Cuba when Castro came to power, dwindling from 15,000 to around 1,500 by 2014. Once Castro entered the Soviet orbit the official anti-Zionist and anti-Israel line became common in Cuba.” Castro’s intelligence trained Islamic terrorists who carried out the kidnapping and execution of Israeli athletes in 1972 at the Munich Olympics.

Second, Ricardo Bofill and a group of intellectuals in Havana founded Cuba’s nonviolent civic movement in 1976, drawing inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. Reverend King’s example would be followed by subsequent generations of Cuban dissidents. To name a few, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas began in the 1980s, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet in the 1990s, and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara in the 2010s. 

On MLK Day CFC highlighted Luis Manuel Otero’s solidarity with the U.S. civil rights movement.

The Hill, January 16, 2023

The religious persecution on our doorstep

by Antonio Garrastazu, Opinion Contributor – 01/16/23 11:00 AM ET

A follower of Saint Lazaro carries a baby during a pilgrimage to the San Lazaro shrine in El Rincon, an area of Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba, on Dec. 16, 2022. The Catholic saint is also known as the Afro-Cuban Yoruba deity Babalu Aye, protector of the sick, an example of Cuba’s religions syncretism. AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

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.

Yet the supremacy of the state always takes precedence, and those who stray from this lesson find themselves at risk. According to Father Fernando Galvez, it is the teachings far more than the practice of the Catholic faith that most threaten the Cuban regime. “The priest can celebrate Mass, the nun can give catechism to children — but as soon as a moral application begins, comparing the evangelical message with the reality they are living, then we begin to notice injustices.” In this way, he notes, “religious freedom and political freedom are intimately mixed and cannot be separated. 

It isn’t just the larger religious groups that are targeted by the Cuban state; even the relatively small Muslim population is kept under strict scrutiny. Life for Cuba’s Muslims improved somewhat following the official recognition of the Islamic League of Cuba in 2007, and the opening of the country’s sole authorized mosque in 2015. Yet this did not prevent persecution. An unofficial mosque was raided in 2017 and state security agents beat the Imam, and Muslims reportedly have been subjected to expulsion from workplaces and schools, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and violence. More recently, Abu Duyanah, president of the Cuban Association for the Dissemination of Islam, was prevented from making his pilgrimage to Mecca on the grounds of “public interest,” without providing any real justification.

America leads the world in advocacy for religious freedom, with bipartisan support for action to assist persecuted religious groups around the world. As we mark Religious Freedom Day, there are significant actions that the U.S. government could take to train a spotlight on persecution in Cuba and galvanize support for the island’s religious prisoners. In addition to enhanced support for efforts to expose and document religious persecution on the island and provide support to leaders working at the grassroots level, the Biden administration and Congress could use their platforms to call on the Cuban government to free Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, imprisoned in 2021 for participating in peaceful protests and reportedly severely beaten in custody.

U.S leaders also could highlight the malign role that Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) plays in the country, as the lead instrument of state persecution of religious believers. This has been well-documented by the United States Committee on International Religious Freedom, which has reported on how the ORA exercises direct and arbitrary control over the affairs of registered religious organizations, requiring permission for virtually any activity other than regular worship services.

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Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter, January 15, 2023

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was born 94 years ago today

 “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” – Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1964 

Martin Luther King Jr. January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia 94 years ago today, but he never lived to see his 40th birthday because he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

A little more than a year before his untimely death, the nonviolent icon delivered an important speech at Stanford University that is well worth hearing and studying.

“Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve.” 

Dr. King’s message is still relevant today, and his family works at The King Center to teach new generations about nonviolence and to share his writings and speeches.

King’s radical critique of the United States

Martin Luther King Jr. was an outspoken critic of American society. He repeatedly challenged the United States to live up to its own lofty ideals, seeking reforms to end segregation and ensure voting rights for African Americans through nonviolent action and democratic norms.  He was also a radical critic of communism.

Reverend King’s political philosophy is best described as Christian Democracy. This school of thought, which includes parties on the center left and center right, is based, like Reverend King, on a Christian view of humanity in which “every individual is considered unique and must be treated with dignity.” In his April 4, 1967 speech, Beyond Vietnam gave full expression to this outlook:

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see than an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. “

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