U.S. State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom

In July 2018, the U.S. State Department held the first ever Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom.[1] At the event’s conclusion, the State Department issued various documents that are discussed below.

The Potomac Declaration [2]

After quoting Article 18 regarding religious freedom of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, the Potomac Declaration asserted, “This right is under attack all around the world. Almost 80 percent of the global population reportedly experience severe limitations on this right. Persecution, repression, and discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, or non-belief are a daily reality for too many. It is time to address these challenges directly.” Therefore, the Chairman of the Ministerial (Secretary Pompeo) declared: the following:

  • “Every person everywhere has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Every person has the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and enjoys the freedom to change faith.
  • Religious freedom is universal and inalienable, and states must respect and protect this human right.
  • A person’s conscience is inviolable. The right to freedom of conscience, as set out in international human rights instruments, lies at the heart of religious freedom.
  • Persons are equal based on their shared humanity. There should be no discrimination on account of a person’s religion or belief. Everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. Citizenship or the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms should not depend on religious identification or heritage.
  • Coercion aimed at forcing a person to adopt a certain religion is inconsistent with and a violation of the right to religious freedom. The threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adopt different beliefs, to recant their faith, or to reveal their faith is entirely at odds with freedom of religion.
  • Religious freedom applies to all individuals as right-holders. Believers can exercise this right alone or in community with others, and in public or private. While religions do not have human rights themselves, religious communities and their institutions benefit through the human rights enjoyed by their individual members.
  • Persons who belong to faith communities and non-believers alike have the right to participate freely in the public discourse of their respective societies. A state’s establishment of an official religion or traditional faith should not impair religious freedom or foster discrimination towards adherents of other religions or non-believers.
  • The active enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief encompasses many manifestations and a broad range of practices. These can include worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Parents and legal guardians have the liberty to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
  • Religion plays an important role in humanity’s common history and in societies today. The cultural heritage sites and objects important for past, present, and future religious practices should be preserved and treated with respect.”

The Potomac Plan of Action [3]

The lengthier Plan of Action also was issued by the Chairman of the Ministerial. It states as follows:

Defending the Human Right of Freedom of Religion or Belief

States should increase collective advocacy and coordination to promote and protect religious freedom and to counter the persecution of individuals because of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Condemn strongly acts of discrimination and violence in the name of or against a particular religion or lack thereof and press for immediate accountability for those responsible for such violence, including state and non-state actors.
  • Protect members of religious communities, dissenting members, and non-believers from threats to their freedom, safety, livelihood, and security on account of their beliefs.
  • Respect the liberty of parents to provide their children religious and moral education in conformity with their own conscience and convictions and to ensure members of religious minority communities and non-believers are not forcibly indoctrinated into other faiths.
  • Protect the ability of religious adherents, institutions, and organizations to produce in quantities they desire religious publications and materials, as well as to import and disseminate such materials.
  • Increase international understanding of how suppression of religious freedom can contribute to violent extremism, sectarianism, conflict, insecurity, and instability.
  • Ensure false accusations of “extremism” are not used as a pretext to suppress the freedom of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice their faith, or otherwise limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
  • Eliminate restrictions unduly limiting the ability of believers and non-believers to manifest their faith or beliefs in observance and practice, either alone or in community with others, through peaceful assembly, worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Speak out bilaterally, as well as through multilateral fora, against violations or abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Confronting Legal Limitations

States should promote religious freedom and bring their laws and policies into line with international human rights norms regarding freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief and ensure individuals can freely change beliefs, or not believe, without penalty or fear of violence, and encourage the repeal of provisions penalizing or discriminating against individuals for leaving or changing their religion or belief.
  • Encourage any state-managed registration systems for official recognition of religious communities be optional (rather than mandatory) and not unduly burdensome, so as to help facilitate the free and legal practice of religion for communities of believers.
  • Allow religious communities to establish freely accessible places of worship or assembly in public or private, to organize themselves according to their own hierarchical and institutional structures, to train their religious personnel and community members, and to select, appoint, and replace their personnel in accordance with their beliefs without government interference.
  • Repeal anti-blasphemy laws, which are inherently subjective, and often contribute to sectarianism and violent extremism. Enforcement of such laws unduly inhibits the exercise of the rights to freedoms of religion, belief, and expression and leads to other human rights violations or abuses.
  • Recognize that respect for religious freedom can afford space to religious actors to engage in constructive efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, terrorism and conflict, and to collaborate with non-religious actors on the same.
  • Encourage the development of conscientious objection laws and policies to accommodate the religious beliefs of military age persons and provide alternatives to military service.

Advocating for Equal Rights and Protections for All, Including Members of Religious Minorities

States should promote the human rights of members of religious minorities, dissenting members from the majority faith, and non-believers, including freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Treat all persons equally under the law – regardless of an individual’s religion, beliefs or religious affiliation, or lack thereof – and ensure law enforcement officials take measures to protect all persons, including members of religious minorities, from harm or discriminatory acts on account of their faith or beliefs.
  • Prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in access to justice, employment, education and housing, in personal status and family laws, and in access to opportunities for expression in public forums.
  • Ensure that all people, including religious minority community members, are free from forced conversions, and are entitled to and receive equal protection under the law without discrimination.
  • Respond quickly to physical assaults on persons and the destruction or vandalizing of holy sites or property based on religion or belief, and hold those responsible accountable.
  • Encourage teaching about the value of intra- and inter-faith understanding and collaboration, and promote a general understanding of world religions to reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes.
  • Foster religious freedom and pluralism by promoting the ability of members of all religious communities, including migrant workers, to practice their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society.
  • Encourage authorities to denounce and condemn public discrimination and crimes targeting individuals on account of their religion or belief or lack thereof.

Responding to Genocide and other Mass Atrocities

States should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other necessary means to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including when based on religious convictions. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Take immediate action to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.
  • Condemn messages or narratives that promote violence against the holders of certain religious or other beliefs or that foster intra- and inter-religious tensions, whether by government officials or non-state actors.
  • Take steps to support investigative efforts and work to preserve evidence and document suspected crimes when reports of atrocities arise, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing.
  • Hold accountable those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, mass atrocities, and ethnic cleansing and related crimes, and employ mechanisms to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation.
  • Consider the needs of survivors and families of survivors of atrocities and provide them assistance and resources to help rebuild and heal traumatized communities and individuals in post-conflict areas.
  • Work with willing victims and survivors of mass atrocities to develop and disseminate communications and educational efforts about their experiences, recovery and resilience.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

States should increase efforts to protect and preserve cultural heritage, including that of threatened minority religious communities, particularly in conflict zones, and to preserve cultural heritage sites, even those of communities whose members have dwindled or emigrated to other countries. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Adopt and implement policies that introduce or improve inventory lists of cultural sites and objects that promote respect for and protect heritage, including places of worship and religious sites, shrines, and cemeteries, and that take appropriate protective measures where such sites are vulnerable to vandalism or destruction by state or non-state actors.
  • Safeguard heritage sites, and help other governments do so, by offering technical assistance and professional training to relevant officials, as well as provide emergency assistance for sites in immediate danger.
  • Assist impacted communities to secure, protect, repair and/or stabilize their cultural heritage sites.
  • Encourage participation by the local population in the preservation of their cultural heritage, and engage members of religious communities and others, including their leadership, with training on ways to protect their cultural heritage from damage and/or looting.
  • Assist with efforts to restore cultural heritage sites of significance to multiple communities in a conflict zone so as to foster intra- and inter-faith relations and rebuild trust.
  • Raise public awareness, particularly among youth, of the significance and history of cultural heritage, by working with and through religious actors and other community leaders.

Strengthening the Response

States should take actions to respond to threats to religious freedom that continue to proliferate around the world. In that spirit, states should consider endorsing the Potomac Declaration and work to:

  • Extend financial support to assist persons persecuted for their religious freedom advocacy, affiliation or practice, or for being a non-believer and support the capacity-building work of religious freedom advocacy organizations, and encourage private foundations to increase funding to such causes.
  • Strengthen rule-of-law, fair trial guarantees, and the institutional capacity to protect religious freedom and other human rights.
  • Provide additional diplomatic resources through the creation of special ambassadorial positions or focal points in foreign ministries, and support collective action through such groupings as the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
  • Train and equip diplomats in the meaning and value of religious freedom and how to advance it.
  • Recommit annually to promoting religious freedom for all, by establishing August 3, the first day of ISIS’s Sinjar massacre targeting Yezidis, as a nationally or internationally recognized day of remembrance of survivors of religious persecution.
  • Allow and support civil society organizations and religious actors in their efforts to advocate for, and organize on behalf of, religious freedom, pluralism, peace and tolerance and related values.
  • Facilitate the creation of domestic forums, or utilize existing groups, where religious groups, faith-based organizations and civil society can meet to discuss concerns about religious freedom at home and abroad, as well as through bodies at the regional level.
  • Encourage government ministries and officials to engage with and listen to the domestic forums regularly, and implement relevant suggestions when possible.
  • Encourage national economic investment projects that foster collaboration and trust building across different communities and demonstrate the economic, societal and individual benefits of respect for religious freedom and pluralism.
  • Train and support religious community actors, including religious actors, to build resilience to and prevent violent extremism and terrorism, which negatively affect religious freedom, by disseminating alternative messages, engaging at-risk community members, and implementing intra- and inter-faith partnerships.

International Religious Freedom Fund [4]

With the U.S. providing coverage for all personnel, administrative and overhead expenses, all of the funds contributed by others would fund the following program activities:

  • Supporting initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief. This encompasses activities such as advocacy initiatives, awareness campaigns, public messaging, community inclusion efforts, conflict prevention
  • Providing assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief for individual needs including, assistance to address threats of violence; medical needs resulting from violent assault; and replacement of equipment damaged or confiscated as a result of harassment.

Other Actions of the Ministerial [5]

The Ministerial also issued statements about Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups; Iran; Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious freedom Repression; China; Burma; and Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws.

According to the Secretary of State before its convening, this Ministerial was to “reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial . . . . . . Religious freedom is indeed a universal human right that I will fight for. [The Ministerial] will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

At the conclusion of this Ministerial, the Secretary of State emphasized that “President Trump has directed his administration to advance and defend the rights of religious freedom at home and abroad, because religious freedom is a universal God-given right to which all people are entitled. It is also an essential building block for all free societies. Ensuring religious freedom around the world is a key priority of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.”

After describing what happened at the Ministerial, Secretary Pompeo complimented Vice President Pence’s announcement of the U.S. Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response, and the U.S. International Religious Freedom Fund. Pompeo also announced that the Department was creating a ten-day International Victor Leadership Program for those “working on the frontiers of religious freedom issues” around the world and a three-day workshop Boldline “to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships that promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” Also announced was the then upcoming Potomac Declaration and the Potomac Plan of Action for religious freedom.

Conclusion

 Although as a member of a Presbyterian Church I strive to follow the teachings of Jesus, I approached the investigation of this Ministerial with some skepticism and fear that it was a device to promulgate what I would regard as a right-wing approach to religion and Christianity.

However, the above account of the work of the first Ministerial does not support such skepticism.Nor does the latest State Department annual report on international religious freedom insofar as it cites to the relevant international standards on the subject. Whether or not its gathered “evidence” or analysis of same meets the same standard is another issue for another day. [6]

Later this month the State Department will hold its second such Ministerial [7] for like-minded governments that have a demonstrated record of advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or governments that have taken significant and meaningful steps to do so; and survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religion or beliefs. This Ministerial will have the following agenda:

  • Discuss opportunities and challenges for promoting and defending religious freedom globally, including how such freedom, international development and humanitarian aid can work together.
  • Discuss best practices for religious freedom advocacy; limitations in forming, registering and recognizing religious communities; challenges facing religious minorities; combatting the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic behavior; countering violent extremism; religious freedom and national security; religious freedom and economic development; cultural heritage protection for religious sites; religious minorities and humanitarian crises; international development aid and religious freedom; and mobilizing faith leaders around peace and development goals.
  • Identify global challenges to religious freedom; develop innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and share new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Invitations will be extended to

This blog will examine this second Ministerial’s work to see if there is any reason to change a favorable opinion about its work. As always, this blog invites reasoned pro and con comments, especially for topics or perspectives that were overlooked.

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[1] According to the State Department’s Diplomatic Dictionary, a “ministerial” is a “ formally arranged meeting of ministers of various states, such as the Defense or Foreign Ministers of the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

[2] State Dep’t, Potomac Declaration (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, Potomac Plan of Action (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Fund: Fact Sheet (July 27, 2018).

[4] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Iran (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on China (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Burma (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws (July 26, 2018).

[5] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019).

[6] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019)

[7] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, 16-18 July 2019 (June 21, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Convenes Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (June 25, 2019).

 

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. State Department 

On May 29, 2018, the U.S. Department of State released its 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, which is required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (“the Act”) and which details the status of religious freedom in nearly 200 foreign countries and describes U.S. actions and policies in support of religious freedom worldwide.[1]

The State Department says its “guiding principle [in preparing this report] is to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible. Motivations and accuracy of sources vary, however, and the Department of State is not in a position to verify independently all information contained in the reports. To the extent possible, the reports use multiple sources to increase comprehensiveness and reduce potential for bias.”

At the report’s release, introductory remarks were made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (a former Republican U.S. Representative from Kansas and Director of the CIA), followed by a briefing for journalists by Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (a former Republican U.S. Senator and Governor of the State of Kansas). After reviewing these comments, the Report’s discussion of Cuba religious freedom will be covered.

Secretary Pompeo’s Introduction[2]

“This report is a testament to the United States’ historic role in preserving and advocating for religious freedom around the world. Religious freedom is in the American bloodstream. It’s what brought the pilgrims here from England. Our founders understood it as our first freedom. That is why they articulated it so clearly in the First Amendment. As James Madison wrote years before he was president or secretary of state, ‘conscience is the most sacred of all property.’ Religious freedom was vital to America’s beginning. Defending it is critical to our future.”

“Religious freedom is not only ours. It is a right belonging to every individual on the globe. President Trump stands with those who yearn for religious liberty. Our Vice President stands with them, and so do I.”

“Advancing liberty and religious freedom advances America’s interests. Where fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, press, and peaceful assembly are under attack, we find conflict, instability, and terrorism. On the other hand, governments and societies that champion these freedoms are more secure, stable, and peaceful.”

“So for all of these reasons, protecting and promoting global respect for religious freedom is a priority of the Trump administration. As our National Security Strategy so clearly states: ‘Our Founders understood religious freedom not as the state’s creation, but as the gift of God to every person and a fundamental right for a flourishing society.’ We’re committed to promoting religious freedom around the world, both now and in the future.”

“I am pleased to announce that the United States will host the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department of State on July 25th and 26th of this year. I look forward to hosting my counterparts from likeminded governments, as well as representatives of international organizations, religious communities, and civil society to reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial, we expect, will break new ground. It will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

Ambassador Brownback’s Briefing[3]

The Ambassador mentioned that Eritrea, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, North Korea  and Iran were “Countries of Particular Concer” and that Pakistan, Russia and Burma also raised serious issues.

Report’s Executive Summary: Cuba Religious Freedom

“The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Communist Party, through the Communist Party’s Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted the government continued to use threats, travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers. In May the government officially informed the Assemblies of God (AG) it would not proceed with confiscation orders against 2,000 AG churches or demolish a church in Santiago under zoning laws passed in 2015; however, it did not provide written guarantees to this effect. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) [4] noted 325 violations of freedom of religion or belief during the year. CSW reported a “significant drop” in the reported cases of violations of religious freedom or belief in the year compared with previous years, which it attributed to the government’s verbal rescinding in May of the decree outlawing the 2,000 AG churches. The majority of CSW’s reported violations were related to government efforts to prevent members of the human rights organization Ladies in White from attending Catholic Mass, as well as government threats and harassment of members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Some leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups stated the religious freedom environment had improved compared with the previous year, pointing to progress made in a pending permit to build a permanent church structure, while some evangelical Christian groups said religious freedom had not improved for them.”” (Emphases added.)

“The Community of Sant’Egidio organized the Paths of Peace, an interreligious meeting, in Havana on October 4 and 5. Leaders of different religions and more than 500 participants attended the meeting, which focused on the importance of welcoming and integrating migrants regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation.”

“U.S. embassy officials met with ORA officials to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and encourage equal treatment in allowing nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), a government-recognized organization with close ties to the government and comprising most Protestant groups, to discuss its operations and programs. The embassy met regularly with Catholic Church authorities and Jewish community representatives concerning the state of religious, economic, and political activities. Embassy officials also met with representatives from Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Santeria, and various Protestant communities. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In social media and other public statements, the U.S. government continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

The Report’s Comments About Cuban Government Practices[5]

Religious organizations and human rights groups stated the government continued to threaten, detain, and use violence against outspoken religious figures, especially those advocating for human rights and religious freedom or collaborating with independent human rights groups. Security forces took measures, including detentions sometimes accompanied by violence, which inhibited the ability of members of the protest group Ladies in White to attend Catholic Mass. Some members of independent evangelical Christian churches said government authorities closely monitored and detained, for unspecified periods of time, their leadership and family members. Representatives of the Patmos Institute, a religious freedom advocacy organization, said authorities also targeted Christians affiliated with the institute, including through threats, detentions, and expulsions from school and work. One leader, who stated the situation had improved from the previous year, cited the approved permit to build the first new church built in the country since 1959.”

“Some high level Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious leaders stated the religious freedom environment had improved compared with the previous year; however, some evangelical Christian groups said religious freedom had not improved for their groups. CSW’s annual report stated church leaders from all denominations reported consistent harassment and surveillance from state security and officials responsible for religious affairs. It also stated the government continued to severely restrict public religious events. The CSW report counted 325 violations during the year, compared with 2,380 violations in 2016 and over 2,300 violations in 2015. In its report CSW stated the “significant drop” in the reported cases of violations of religious freedom or belief in the year, compared with previous years, was due to the government’s verbal rescinding in May of a decree that had outlawed 2,000 AG churches. One leader, who stated the situation had improved from the previous year, cited the approved permit to build a new Catholic church in Pinar del Rio Province – the first new church built in the country since 1959.” (Emphases added.)

“According to CSW, human rights activist Jorge Luis Garcia Perez reported state security agents raided the home of Misael Diaz Paseiro on October 22 and confiscated two Bibles, a number of crucifixes and five rosaries. On November 4, police reportedly beat Diaz, tore his rosaries from his neck, and said ‘in addition to being a counterrevolutionary, you are also a Christian. You should look at us – we are revolutionaries and we don’t believe in your god. Our god is Fidel Castro.’ Diaz was imprisoned on November 22 and reportedly denied visits from a priest and access to a Bible. The Christian Post reported the government charged Diaz with ‘pre-criminal dangerousness’ and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison.” (Emphasis added.)

“Reverend Juan Carlos Nunez Velazquez, an Apostolic Movement leader, lost an appeal on February 1 to overturn his sentence of one year under house arrest. Police arrested Nunez in 2016 for disturbing the peace because he failed to comply with police orders to reduce the size and volume of the speakers he used during Sunday sermons at his open-air church.”

“According to CSW, in February authorities twice interrogated an Eastern Baptist Convention pastor about his work, members of his congregation, and the activities of his church. The authorities also threatened to confiscate the property; however, at year’s end, the government had taken no action against the church.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW and news sources, on April 27, airport authorities detained and interrogated Felix Yuniel Llerena Lopez, a 20-year-old student and evangelical Christian and religious freedom activist, upon his return to the country. The authorities informed Llerena Lopez he was being investigated for planning terrorist acts, possessing pornographic materials, and meeting with “terrorist” Cuban exiles opposed to the government. The authorities briefly detained Lopez’s mother, expelled Llerena Lopez from the university where he was a part-time student, and banned him from international travel. On October 2, authorities informed Llerena Lopez he would not be charged with any crimes and rescinded his travel ban; however, the university had not reinstated him at year’s end. CSW quoted Llerena Lopez as saying, ‘After five months of opposition, arrests, being expelled from university, intimidation, threats, and a false accusation, today I can say that solidarity and the dignity of not giving up on principles … triumphed.’” (Emphases added.)

“According to CSW, on November 6, police arrested and briefly detained Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso, a local Patmos coordinator in Santa Clara, without charges. CSW sources said on April 11, Rodriguez’s daughter, Dalila Rodriguez Gonzalez, was fired from her position as a university professor for not being ‘a good influence on students’ and because she ‘could damage their formation.’  According to Rodriguez Alonso, his daughter’s dismissal was revenge for his religious freedom advocacy.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW, police physically assaulted members of the Ladies in White, a rights advocacy organization, while they were en route to attend religious ceremonies. On February 19, CSW reported that a police officer punched in the face Ladies in White member Magda Onelvis Mendoza Diaz as she was going to church. On August 13, a police officer in Havana reportedly choked Berta Soler Fernandez, and officers detained her for 24 hours; they subsequently released her without charge.” (Emphases added.)

“According to representatives of several religious organizations that had unsuccessfully sought legal recognition, the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the MOJ to deny the registration of certain religious groups. If the MOJ decided a group was duplicating the activities of another, it denied recognition. In some cases, the MOJ delayed the request for registration or cited changing laws as a reason why a request had not been approved.”

“According to the members of Protestant denominations, some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of ‘house churches’ in private homes; however, most unregistered house churches continued to operate with little or no government interference. A number of religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, continued to await a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official recognition, some dating as far back as 1994. These groups said the authorities permitted them to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, make substantial renovations to their facilities, and send representatives abroad. They also said state security continued to monitor their movements, telephone calls, visitors, and religious meetings.”

“According to CSW sources, on September 14, police disrupted an interdenominational Christian service in Santiago; local authorities had previously approved the service. Local authorities said the service was ‘counterrevolutionary’ and threatened to imprison event organizer Pastor Ernesto Lora if he organized a similar event in the future.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW, on April 3, authorities in Las Tunas fined Reverend Mario Travieso of the Apostolic Church 1,500 pesos ($1,500) for building a wall next to his church that the authorities considered too high even though he had received written approval from his neighbors. Prior to imposing the fine, authorities had inspected his house in response to a noise complaint; they told him not to pray or sing with neighboring families.” (Emphasis added.)

“Many religious leaders continued to state they refrained from speaking about overtly political topics. Some said they feared criticizing the government could lead to denials of permits from the ORA, dismantling of religious buildings, or other measures that could limit the growth of their religious groups. The nongovernmental organization Outreach Aid to the Americas (OAA) reported some instances in which evangelical Christians not supporting Communist Party political activities experienced harassment and threats from government employers and educators.”

“According to the OAA, the Central University in Santa Clara expelled an 18-year-old student after he began attending Christian group meetings at the university. The OAA said university officials told the student he was expelled because his beliefs ‘were not compatible with the philosophy taught at the university.’”

“The OAA said from October 2016 to April 2017, the supervisors of an employee in a government-run company in Taguasco reportedly threatened the employee with termination after learning he had joined a Christian church in 2016. The man reported his harassment and threats to his pastor in April.”

The OAA stated in April school administrators had threatened to expel a 17-year-old student “enrolled in a pre-university course at the Ernesto Che Guevara Institute of Santa Clara if he continued to participate in Christian group meetings.”

“In May the government informed the Assemblies of God (AG) it would not proceed with confiscation orders against 2,000 AG churches or demolish a church in Santiago under zoning laws passed in 2015; however, it did not provide written guarantees to this effect.”

“Many religious groups continued to use private homes as house churches to work around restrictions on constructing new buildings. Protestant leaders’ estimates of the total number of house churches for Protestant groups varied significantly, from fewer than 2,000 to as many as 10,000. Religious groups said authorities approved many applications within two to three years from the date of the application, but either did not respond to or denied other applications arbitrarily.”

“Representatives from both the Catholic Church and the CCC [Cuban Council of Churches] said they continued to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in some provinces. The Protestant seminary in Matanzas and churches in Pinar del Rio continued to train chaplains and laypersons to provide religious counseling for prison inmates and to provide support for their families. The CCC continued to operate a training facility it opened in 2016, at which it offered courses on chaplain work as well as courses on caring for sacred religious objects, gender and women’s issues, and seminars for international students.”

“Representatives of religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad generally unimpeded to participate in exchanges between local and international faith-based communities.”

“The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services. According to local observers, in September authorities prohibited a Baptist journalist from traveling with an interfaith group of religious and civil society activists and journalists to a human rights training seminar in Brazil. The journalist’s employer reportedly accused the journalist of selling secret information and of committing treason. Several independent journalists and bloggers reported an increase in government harassment and prohibitions of travel of individuals who questioned government policies.”

“Some religious leaders reported obstacles preventing them from importing religious materials and donated goods, including bureaucratic challenges and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on computers and electronic devices. Several groups said they could import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods. The Catholic Church and several Protestant religious group representatives said they continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.”

“By year’s end, the government had not granted the Archbishop of Havana’s 2016 public request to allow the Catholic Church to reopen religious schools and have open access to broadcast on television and radio. The ORA authorized the CCC to host a monthly radio broadcast, which allowed the council’s messages to be heard throughout the country. No other churches had access to media, which are all state-owned. Several religious leaders continued to protest the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.”

“The ORA stated in August the law on associations was being revised, although it did not provide a timeline for when the revisions would be finalized, nor what the changes would be. Members of the AG continued to request the government pass reforms to the law that would validate and legalize the property the church owned, as well as allow the church to build new temples.”

“Several religious leaders said the ORA continued to grant new permits to repair or restore existing buildings, allowing the expansion of some structures and in some cases the construction of essentially new buildings on the foundations of the old. In August an ORA source stated the ORA had granted permission in 2015 for the Catholic Church to build an entirely new church on newly acquired ground in Pinar del Rio Province. The media reported in 2017 the construction was almost complete. Some religious leaders stated the government regularly granted permits to buy properties to be used as house churches, including in some cases when the titleholder to the property did not plan to live there. Other religious groups stated securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible.”

T”he government continued to prevent religious groups from establishing accredited schools but did not interfere with the efforts of some religious groups to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before- and after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs. The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners. Several Protestant communities continued to offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however the government did not recognize any of these degrees.”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs since their religion prohibited them from political involvement. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses remained ineligible for professional careers in the fields of law, medicine, among others.”

“Church leaders reported the government continued an unofficial practice of allowing civilian public service to substitute for mandatory military service for those who objected on religious grounds. Church leaders submitted official letters to a military committee, which decided whether to grant these exemptions. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventist leaders stated their members generally were permitted to perform social service in lieu of military service.”

“Some religious leaders said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas. They cited a measure that prohibited churches and religious groups from using individuals’ bank accounts for their organizations, and required existing individual accounts used in this way to be consolidated into one per denomination or organization. Larger, better organized churches reported more success in receiving large donations, while smaller, less formal churches reported difficulties with banking procedures. According to these religious leaders, the regulations allowed the government to curb the scope and number of activities of individual churches and to single out groups that could be held accountable for withdrawing money intended for purposes not approved by the government.”

“Religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs, including assisting the elderly, providing potable water to small towns, growing and selling fruits and vegetables at below-market prices, and establishing health clinics. International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana. Caritas in particular was very involved in gathering and distributing hurricane relief items.”

“According to the Western Baptist Convention (WBC), on July 6, members of a family that occupied a Havana property owned by the WBC more than 30 years ago broke into the WBC’s new office adjacent to where the family lived. The family reportedly stole the WBC’s documents, computers, furniture, and other property and refused to return it to the WBC. The ORA took no action, despite WBC’s requests for ORA’s intervention. In 1992, a court ruled the family’s residency in the property was illegal but did not require the family to leave.”

Conclusion

The Act requires the Secretary of State to make annual designations of counties that have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” as “Countries of Particular Concern,” and on December 22, 2017, then Secretary Rex Tillerson so designated these 10 countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all of which in this Report are so identified.[6]

The Report’s discussion about Cuba surprisingly did not mention the recent annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and instead heavily relied on the annual report of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which seems contrary to the Department’s stated desire to have multiple sources of information. Further research and a separate blog post about CSW seem necessary and then an overall evaluation of these reports about Cuba religious freedom.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 (May 29, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Five things To Know About This Year’s International Religious Freedom Report Release (May 29, 2018); Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018). Earlier reports on international religious freedom by the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are identified in the “Cuban Human Rights” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA. /

[2]  U.S. State Dep’t, Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (May 29, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Briefing on the Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (May 29, 2018).

[4] Christian Solidarity World claims that it it is independent of any government or political persuasion and says it has a “specialist team of advocates work on over 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, to ensure everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief is defended, protected and promoted. Our vision is a world free from religious persecution, where everyone has the right to practice their religion or belief freely.” Its main office appears to be in London with other offices in Brussels, Belgium; Edinburgh, U.K.; Washington, D.C.; Casper, WY, U.S.; and Kaduna, Nigeria. In April 2017 the U.N. granted CSW  Consultative Status allowing it to participate in certain U.N. activities. Its Founder and Chief Executive is Mervyn Thomas, a member of the World Assemblies of God Religious Freedom Commission. (See Thomas, One Church, One Prayer; Williams, Christian Solidarity Worldwide gets UN recognition after lengthy wait (April 20, 2017).)

[5] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017—Cuba (May 29, 2018).

[6] Compare U.S. State Dep’t,  Designations Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (Jan. 4, 2018)   with Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (May 28, 2018).  The six additional countries so designated by the Commission were Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.