Living in exile: “I am not less than any other human. I just want to be heard and seen”

Ali* is an Iranian Christian convert who was reported to the police after some of those close to him discovered he had changed his religion. In 2015 he fled to Cuba via Armenia because it was the easiest place for him to get a visa as an Iranian.

Ali hoped to be resettled quickly in an anglophone country because of his fluency in English. He has been recognized as a refugee by the UNHCR and is in the resettlement process, but this has been slowed significantly because of political issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. CSW spoke with Ali who told us of his experiences of living in exile.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

“I’m a young Iranian Christian citizen who has been stuck in long and exhausting limbo against my will for more than half a decade in Cuba. I’m a refugee, away from all the loved ones and abandoned in a foreign land with no sense of ‘belonging.’ I’m a university graduate with an impressive background in sales and business management that has been achieved with dedication and hard work at international companies in my country.

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Tearing down Cuba’s ‘wall of fear’

No single fundamental human right exists in isolation. There is a significant overlap and interlinking of all rights, exemplified in the relationship between freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. These three rights sit side by side in Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Over the past year, and especially in recent months, these related rights have increasingly come under attack in Cuba, as members of independent civil society including artists and journalists, some of whom identify with a particular religion or belief, have maintained calls for legal and political reform, in particular coalescing around protests of Legal Decree 370 and Legal Decree 349.

Legal Decree 349 came into force in 2018 and gave the government extensive control over all artistic expression on the island, including mandating that any artistic activity had to be approved in advance by the Ministry of Culture. At the time, many Cubans expressed concern that the law would essentially stamp out freedom of expression in Cuba by only permitting the existence of government approved ‘art’. The same year a group of Cuban artists, journalists and academics came together and formed the San Isidro Movement to peacefully and creatively protest official censorship of artistic expression on the island.

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“It is hard to fight your whole life”: An interview with María Antonieta Colunga Olivera

María Antonieta Colunga Olivera is a journalist, the mother of Caleb and the wife of Yoel Suárez, also a journalist and FoRB activist whom she met when she worked as an editor and journalist for the Cuban magazine El Caimán Barbudo. 

Now she works as a communicator in the national office of Cáritas Cuba, a humanitarian aid institution of the Catholic Church. Her husband has written extensively on human rights and freedom of religion or belief, and as a result of his work, he has been subjected to regular harassment by the Cuban authorities. 

CSW spoke with María Antonieta to hear her testimony and highlight her experience.

“The longest hours of my life”

María Antonieta’s husband Yoel was summoned to the Siboney Police Station in Havana for the first time on 5 February 2020. There, he was interrogated for three hours by a state security agent, and informed he’d been subjected to an indefinite travel ban.

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“Freedom, I dream of freedom”

Yusleysi Gil Mauricio is a socio-cultural studies graduate. She became a Christian in 2010, and since then, she has been passionate about children’s ministry and worked as a children’s pastor for a few years.

She is the wife of Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre, a journalist and defender of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba. Together they have two children, the eldest is 2 years old and their baby is 4 months old. CSW spoke with Yusleysi to hear her story and share her experience.

“I have had a fervent and committed faith since I converted to Christ in 2010. On 12 December 2012 I began to attend the Fuego y Dinámica International Apostolic Ministry (MAIFD) Church in Camagüey where I worked as a children’s pastor. The church is not registered by the government and [that’s when] the persecution began. From the beginning I had a very special experience with God and I never pulled away from Him again, but being a member of an unregistered church was hard for me.

It took a lot for me to overcome my fears because [everybody I knew] they spoke very badly of what happened inside the church. It was only after I could see from my own experience that we were not doing anything illegal, that I stopped being secretive about it.

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“Being different is considered a crime”: The story of a Muslim woman in Cuba

On International Women’s Day, CSW shares the first of several testimonies from women in Cuba who have been targeted on account of their religion or belief. Today, we hear from a Muslim woman in the country, whose name has been redacted for security reasons.

I graduated from university in visual arts in 1990.

Everything was fine until I converted to Islam at the age of 24, in September 2004. At the time I was making a living by drawing pictures at the airport, but after I became a Muslim, I was immediately expelled because of supposed security concerns.

Targeted at home

Some time after [my conversion], in 2007, Pakistani students in Santa Clara and other provinces began to visit our home.[1] Sometimes they would spend days with us, during which time our house was [constantly] watched. At times people in plainclothes were stationed right outside our door, or electric company inspectors or workers for the anti-mosquito campaign[2] would visit at odd times of the day, times when we know they do not usually inspect for areas of standing water.

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