Pope Francis arrives in Cuba for a short visit. Might it lead to an end to the persecution of Christians that is a feature of this Communist nation? Unfortunately, the signs are not hopeful.
According to a June 2015 report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, violations of religious freedom have actually been growing in severity during the year, with the authorities targeting church property as a new means of controlling religious groups.
A further cause for concern is the arrest in February 2015 of a church leader Jesus Noel Carballeda and his imprisonment since then without charge, apparently for his continued leadership of an underground church group.
The report concluded, in part: “Many observers have wrongly interpreted concessions given to a few religious groups, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, and the upcoming papal visit, as indicative of a new and growing respect for religious freedom. However, the growing severity of violations of freedom of religion or belief reported by a wide range of denominations and religious groups, and new legislation used to justify the arbitrary expropriation of religious properties in order to exert more control over the relevant religious group, are evidence of the opposite.”
Roberto Ornan Roche is a Cuban writer and also a strong Christian. I would particularly recommend his short book “The Lighthouse of Asaph,” which is a moving collection of devotionals. A few years ago I interviewed him about the reality of being a Christian in today’s Cuba.
He said that persecution began at a young age. “I remember when I was a schoolboy that our teachers made us stand at the front of the classroom, so that the other students could make fun of us because we were Christians,” he told me.
“The other children were trained to hate us. This was not an isolated practice. It was mandatory for the teachers to embarrass the Christian children. Likewise, it was necessary for parents to deny their faith so that their children could study at university.”
Despite this, he said, Cuba boasts some strong churches and excellent leaders. “Our pastor is a very good preacher,” he said. “He is very inspiring and his sermons attract a lot of non-believers. We also have home prayer groups, and fasting and prayer in the mornings.”
He described the congregation as “simple and humble, very poor and unpretentious,” and noted that some members who had been able to leave Cuba to live abroad were helping the church with gifts.
He also said that after waiting many years for a permit, and “jumping over thousands of bureaucratic barriers,” his small church was constructing a new building.
So there is hope. And I assume that eventually the Communist thugs who rule Cuba – and North Korea too – will be forced into retreat, delivering a real revolution of religious freedom. But I do not see signs that the Pope’s visit will be the catalyst that brings this about. I hope I might be proven wrong.