‘We were evicted for the first time in 2007. The government came into our house [and] threw us out into the street – they took everything from us and threw it into the street. We were left homeless. At the same time, the government demolished our place of worship, Emanuel Church. They destroyed the floor and took it away. They left everything in ruins. They confiscated our land. This was the first violation of that scale. They demolished everything and took everything from us, our family possessions, music and audio equipment. Everything the church had was seized, all our technology was taken away. The church was left without land, its property and possessions, without a place to worship and we were left homeless in the street.’Pastor Alain Toledano Valiente in an interview with CSW, September 2020
Less than ten years later, Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba was subjected to a second major attack. At 5am on Friday 5 February 2016, military, state security and police officers surrounded the property where the church was located and where the Toledano family was living. Pastor Toledano was abroad at the time, but his wife was taken into custody by government authorities and held incommunicado for the duration of the demolition from 5am to 7pm. Around 40 church members were also detained, and the church and home were demolished.
These incidents – the demolitions of November 2007 and February 2016 – are two dark threads in a disturbing tapestry of the Cuban authorities’ violations against Pastor Toledano, spanning over two decades. More than six years after that second major church demolition, attacks against Pastor Toledano, his church, and their right to a place of worship continue to escalate.
Sixty years of oppression
By the start of the year 1959, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz had seized full political control of Cuba. The beginning of his leadership marked the start of a period of increasing state repression of religious and belief groups in Cuba. Under Castro’s political rule, it was made almost impossible for unregistered religious groups to receive legal recognition from the Ministry of Justice. Any new religious groups and their activities were rendered illegal under Cuban law.
Castro’s leadership formally ended in 2008, but violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) have not abated.
The Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), part of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), was created to regulate religious affairs on the island. In reality, the ORA is a major perpetrator of FoRB violations in Cuba.
The ORA requires the registration of all religious groups and places of worship in an arbitrary and non-transparent process which is routinely abused and used as a form of punishment. Religious leaders have reported to CSW that registration requests are frequently ignored or denied.
While all religious groups experience FoRB violations to varying degrees, religious groups that have been unable to obtain registration, that have arbitrarily been stripped of registration, or which have chosen not to register for reasons of conscience, experience some of the most egregious violations. Emanuel Church is one such group: their unregistered status means that their very existence is illegal under Cuban law, they are therefore unable to register their place of worship and they are vulnerable to interference, disruption and attack by state authorities.
In 2008, Cuba signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both treaties afford protections to FoRB. Fourteen years later, Cuba has yet to ratify either.
A church under attack
In 1999, Alain Toledano founded Emanuel Church with his wife, Marilín Alayo Correa, in Santiago de Cuba. The community, which began with just a few people in a living room, quickly grew into the hundreds.
Since CSW began monitoring Pastor Alain’s case in 2005, 47 accounts of violations against Alain have been logged, 45% of which involve harassment, and 34% threats.
Violations relating specifically to Emanuel Church’s place of worship – be it destruction of property, threats of confiscation, or allegations against the legality of land ownership – make up 36% of the 47 reported cases.
After the destruction of their church building in 2016, the congregation of Emanuel Church was forced for some time to divide and meet in various houses around the city. For the past few years, they have been constructing and meeting in a building on land owned by Rudisvel Rivera Robert, a member of the congregation.
Much like with their previous place of worship, attempts to prevent Emanuel Church from meeting on Mr Rivera’s land have been routine and persistent.
On 6 September 2019, for example, Pastor Toledano was summoned to the Police Station, his third summons within a period of 15 days. At the station, he was threatened with imprisonment and verbally assaulted by officials. Seeing that Pastor Toledano remained firm and would not be forced to stop holding church services, the officials applied a fine of 500 Cuban pesos (approximately 15GBP/20USD) and issued a decree which threatened to demolish the site where the church was meeting.
In the following years, the government has maintained and intensified their campaign of threats, fines, harassment and arbitrary detentions against Emanuel Church’s right to a place of worship. On 30 September 2021, two state security agents posing as inspectors arrived at Mr Rivera’s home to investigate alleged construction infractions. They conducted a search of the house and found nothing illegal, then identified themselves as state security officials. They demanded that Mr Rivera stop lending his land to Emanuel Church, which he refused. The officials returned with police officers and Mr Rivera was taken into custody. His three young children watched on as he was taken, crying. For several hours, he was threatened at the Abel Santamaria District Police Station.
Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’
The ability to practice, worship and observe faith in community, and more specifically in a safe place of worship, is a freedom taken for granted in many countries across the world. But for Pastor Toledano and his congregation, as for so many religious groups in Cuba, it is the furthest thing from a given. Since its formation in 1999, Emanuel church’s freedom to meet and worship has been consistently and persistently attacked.
Ironically, this continuing campaign of harassment against church communities illustrates just how much the Cuban government fears the authority of churches like Emanuel Church and leaders like Pastor Toledano.
We must therefore stand in solidarity with Pastor Toledano and the community of Emanuel Church. And we must declare that we will not accept a reality in which Emanuel Church, or any other peaceful religious or belief group in Cuba, is left without a place to worship.
By CSW’s Advocacy Intern
Below is a timeline detailing just a few of the violations which have been perpetrated against Pastor Toledano over the past 15 years. A more detailed version is available to download as a PDF here.