In the early hours of 30th October, authorities in the Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba took an action they’d been waiting years to take, demolishing the site of a church that has been under threat since 2015.

The church is pastored by Reverend Faustino (Fausto) Palomo, and belongs to the Assemblies of God movement, one of the largest religious groups on the island. It was located in the Abel Santamaria neighbourhood of Santiago de Cuba. CSW sources report that Cuban State Security, arrived at the site at about 7.30am with heavy machinery and began to clear the area.

Cuba Church

 A church in Cuba, a country which has a long history of violations of religious freedom. PICTURE: CSW

Despite the fact that the Assemblies of God denomination, unlike many other religious groups, is legally recognised by the Cuban authorities, the church in Abel Santamaria has long been a target of the government. A demolition was originally attempted in October, 2015, but was prevented after peaceful protesters held a spontaneous sit-in at the church.

Cuba Pastor Toledano1

Pastor Alain Toledano. PICTURE: Via CSW

 

"Pastor Toledano and his own church have a long history of being similarly targeted by the Cuban authorities. His church has been demolished on two separate occasions, and he is currently banned from international travel after being declared ‘regulado’ (regulated) by the government. He has also been arrested or summoned for interrogation on multiple occasions, as have members of his family and congregation. "

During the demolition, Pastor Alain Toledano, a prominent local leader of a separate unregistered denomination, the Apostolic Movement, was physically apprehended whilst filming the attack. He was taken to the Motorizada Police Station, where he was held for nine hours.

Pastor Toledano and his own church have a long history of being similarly targeted by the Cuban authorities. His church has been demolished on two separate occasions, and he is currently banned from international travel after being declared ‘regulado’ (regulated) by the government. He has also been arrested or summoned for interrogation on multiple occasions, as have members of his family and congregation. 

The targeting of religious leaders in Cuba is nothing new. In the 60-plus years since the Cuban revolution the situation for religious groups on the island has fluctuated somewhat, but has for the most part been one of routine violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). In 2019 alone CSW received 260 documented cases of FoRB violations. This year the number is already at 145.

The majority of violations are perpetrated by the Office of Religious Affairs, an arm of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party which holds authority over all religious groups and associations. The ORA maintains a consistently antagonistic relationship with religious groups, habitually denying or failing to respond to the requests of religious leaders to, for example, make essential repairs to their buildings of worship or to hold special events.

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To add insult to injury in the case of the recent demolition, CSW sources have since reported that Pastor Palomo, along with the Assemblies of God regional superintendent José Martínez, was taken away by members of the Department of Physical Planning and other government officials in the morning of 2nd November. It is believed that the authorities are applying pressure on Pastor Palomo to sign a document saying that the demolition of his church was legal. Sources also report that the authorities are attempting to charge Pastor Palomo for the rental of the machinery used in the demolition.

There is much the international community can and should be doing to intervene in cases like that of Pastor Palomo and his congregation. States must raise FoRB concerns with Cuba at every opportunity, including in multilateral institutions like the United Nations Human Rights Council. Specific pressure must be applied on Cuba to ratify and fully implement the international treaties it has signed, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights – both of which contain protections for FoRB.

As citizens, we too have a part to play. Firstly, we must pray for the island of Cuba, asking God to protect vulnerable religious groups. We must also hold our own governments to account, calling on them to demonstrate a robust commitment to the protection of FoRB by taking the actions detailed above.

"States must raise FoRB concerns with Cuba at every opportunity, including in multilateral institutions like the United Nations Human Rights Council. Specific pressure must be applied on Cuba to ratify and fully implement the international treaties it has signed, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights – both of which contain protections for FoRB."

Finally, we can also encourage those facing hostility and oppression in Cuba. One way to do this is using CSW’s Connect and Encourage resource – a directory of individuals around the world who have asked to receive letters and cards of encouragement. The directory contains the details of multiple Christians in Cuba, including Pastor Toledano. 

While some may question the effectiveness of writing a letter to someone facing imprisonment or who has just witnessed their church being demolished, CSW has received countless testimonies from those who have received letters saying they reminded them that they weren’t alone. In some cases individuals have even received better treatment because the authorities know other people are paying attention.

The situation for Christians and other religious groups in Cuba remains deeply concerning, but many of them continue to stand firm in the face of government of oppression. As we take inspiration and encouragement from their powerful examples, why don’t we too take a minute to encourage them in return.

Ellis Heasley is public affairs officer at UK-based religious freedom advocacy CSW.