Havana, Cuba, August of 2013, www.cubanet.org — “As long as the Office of Religious Affairs of the Communist Party’s Central Committee exists to monitor pastoral work, one cannot speak of religious liberty in Cuba.” So said Pastor Mario Felix Lleonart from the Baptist Church of Taguayabon to Cubanet in the province of Villa Clara.
The absence of a religious law offers an opportunity for the Office of Religious Affairs to control the churches, driving them toward the political goals of the only party. If there were a law regarding religion, churches would be able to count on a legal foundation with duties and rights. All those religious who do not threaten the society in which they live could be legalized, but this message of non-violent resistance could bury the ideological pillars of the dictatorship.
Monitoring by the Office of Religious Affairs translates into rigorous control over those who have been chosen, or appointed, as leaders of legally recognized religious institutions, and into maintaining strict contact with them. “Faced with any matter that they think requires them to put pressure on a religious denomination, they quickly call its leader. They coerce him, they blackmail him, they manipulate him, depending on his reaction,” commented Pastor Lleonart.
“Many enter into open plotting with this office, and there’s suddenly a divorce between these religious guides and the people of this denomination. They take advantage and make business deals out of the perks that the government can give them, while the people suffer from shortages and lack of liberty,” he added.
The good pastor
Lleonart is a human rights activist and from his Twitter account he was the first to break the news of the political beating in Santa Clara, which caused the death of the political opponent Juan Wilfredo Soto in 2011.
Everything indicates that the approximately $27,000 bank account of the Baptist Seminary of Santa Clara, which is frozen by the State, is being used, among other reasons, as a means of coercion to keep Pastor LLeonart and his wife on the school’s faculty and Reverand Homero Carbonell as its president. These two figures, who are active members of Cuba’s persecuted and authentic civil society, are not to the liking of the Office of Religious Affairs. For this reason, they are pressuring them to abandon their positions of influence.
This bank account is the result of the generosity of other Baptist churches in the United States, but they are not in communication with the Cuban government. “Maybe if the churches making the donation had come to say ’Liberate the Five’* or gave the regime what it wanted, then they would have maintained good relations, but that is not the case.”
The Baptist Convention of Western Cuba, founded in 1905, does not submit to the interests of the government. The church in Santa Clara, which is a member of the Convention, opened its account with the International Financial Bank (BFR), which assumed they had been able to use the money. That is until one day when the government declared that, because of “political sanctions,” it would be frozen. The following was the BFI’s response when asked why the funds were not available: “These are directives from the Party in Havana, from the Office of Religious Affairs.”
When the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) held its seventh General Assembly a few months ago in Havana, the government made a show of unfreezing the seminary’s bank account. But it was a farce, as noted by the pastor:
“We cannot withdraw so much as a penny. They let it be known through the BFI that the account would be unfrozen, but only for construction purposes. Who are they to tell the church how to use its money? Or that to withdraw a penny we have to verify that it was used to buy a brick and not cement? Even then we have not been able to withdraw one cent because we are waiting for a signature that never comes.”
State Security, in the person of one of its agents, told Pastor Lleonart on one occasion that he “would not be treated like a pastor but like a counter-revolutionary.”
Another agent told the pastor while in detention that he had heard very good things about him from the community he had gathered together through his pastoral work in Taguayabón, but that there was no reason for him to be in Santa Clara, spending time with “those blacks,” a reference to the province’s opposition leaders, who for the most part are black, such as Guillermo Fariñas, Jorge Luis García Perez (aka Antúnez) and Damaris Moya Portieles.
“The agent from State Security took the liberty of briefing me on what I should do in my pastoral work, presenting it as though it were completely divorced from my work in the field. His briefing is the same as that of the Office of Religious Affairs which — though perhaps not using the same words he did but with the same goal of limiting one’s rights — asks pastors in Cuba to be calm, to focus on singing, on prayer, on giving sermons only within our four walls, to do our part to keep the people calm and to distance ourselves from the reality outside,” says Pastor Lleonart.
In 2009 the prestigious magazine Christianity Today chose for the cover of its July issue a photograph of Lleonart with a quote from him: “Here I am, easing the suffering of my people.”
On July 7, 2013 a religious service was interrupted by a man suffering from mental disabilities. As he was being led out of the church, he shouted death threats against the pastor. The man’s family regularly attends the church and described how he was locked up for twelve days, but was returned home without having received medical treatment and in worse shape that when he left, still threatening the pastor and his family.
“It is not my own life that concerns me, nor that of my family. I hope and trust in God that absolutely nothing will happen. But for me the evidence that State Security is indeed involved is when I realized that — even though everyone knows about the incident and it has even been discussed on Twitter — the authorities have done absolutely nothing. They have let it be known that this matter does not interest them.”
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 | by Lilianne Ruíz
*Translator’s note: A reference to five Cubans convicted in the United States of espionage and held in detention.
15 August 2013