(CNSNews.com) – Cuba’s communist government has put to rest any doubts about its violations of religious freedom by preventing four Christian leaders from attending this week’s religious freedom ministerial at the State Department, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said on Tuesday.
Cuban authorities reportedly barred four Protestant leaders from traveling to Washington for the event – billed by the State Department as the biggest event of its kind ever – either turning them back at the airport at the weekend or refusing them permission earlier to leave.
“If the denial of religious freedom in Cuba was ever in question, the Cuban government laid to rest all doubt this weekend by blatantly prohibiting four pastors, leaders of the country’s major religious organizations, from leaving the country to attend the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom,” USCIRF commissioner Kristina Arriaga said.
“This is exactly the type of human rights violation that we and ministerial attendees from all over the world are working to expose and to prevent,” she continued. “We urge the Cuban government to allow these religious leaders to participate in this important conversation – in person – and to return to Cuba to work together with officials to improve religious freedom conditions for all of its citizens.”
The leaders forbidden to travel were Evangelical League of Cuba president Alida Leon Baiz, Western Baptist Convention of Cuba president Dariel Llanes Quintana, Assemblies of God superintendent Moises de Prada, and Prophetic Apostolic Movement leader Alain Toledano Valiente.
Evangelical Christianity is a fast-growing movement in Cuba, and a group of church leaders came together last month to establish a new Alliance of Cuban Evangelical Churches (AIEC), claiming to represent some one million believers – about nine percent of the country’s population.
They said they did not feel that the Council of Churches in Cuba represents them. (The State Department describes the Council of Churches as “a government-registered organization with close ties to the government.”)
Three of the four leaders prevented from traveling to the State Department ministerial are founder members of the independent AIEC.
One of them, Leon Baez, told the Miami, Fla.-based Radio Television Marti she believed the government action was a response to the formation of the AIEC.
On his Facebook page, another of the barred pastors, Toledano Valiente, said he was stopped at the airport at check-in and told that the intelligence service had placed a restriction on his departure.
“I denounce the slave regime that has kidnapped the island and Cuban people,” he said.
In a statement cited by the advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Leon Baez said that according to Cuban immigration law, the only people the authorities may prevent from leaving the country “are those who are subject to criminal proceedings or in cases of concern for defense and national security or reasons of public utility.”
None of those applied in her case, she said.
“I cannot conceive of a country where the inalienable right to move freely can be limited without determining causes and without adequate notification in terms of time,” Leon Baez said. “Even the worst criminals are notified of accusations against them and informed that there will be a trial before they arrive at a court.”
CSW’s head of advocacy, Anna Lee Stangl said that through its arbitrary action against leaders “who represent some of the largest Protestant groups in the country, the Cuban government has made clear that its policies of control and intimidation have not changed.”
“CSW stands with all those who have been prevented from being in Washington DC this week to participate in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, and will ensure that their voices are heard even if they are not able to be physically present.”
Last year authorities in Havana were made aware of the growing clout of evangelicals when some of the provisions of a proposed new socialist constitution ran into strong opposition. Particularly contentious was one that sought to replace a clause in the 1976 constitution defining marriage as “a union between one man and one woman” with “a union between two persons.”
With a referendum on the constitution looming, drafters agreed to remove the new marriage language but without retaining the traditional definition. (The sensitive issue was deferred, and a separate “family code” being drafted over the next two years is expected to deal with it.)
Government officials campaigned hard for a massive endorsement of the new document, and church leaders reported being intimidated to vote “yes” in the referendum. According to official figures, 86.8 percent of voters approved the draft constitution on Feb. 24.
Cuba is not one of ten countries designated by the State Department as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for religious freedom violations, although it is on the USCIRF’s list of recommended “tier two” countries – countries where violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are viewed as serious, but not reaching the threshold envisaged in U.S. law for CPC status.