Even COVID-19 couldn’t halt Cuba’s severe violations of freedom of religion or belief

In most countries around the world, 2020 saw the suspension of at least some communal religious activities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuba was no exception. For several months, religious groups were unable to gather in public spaces and house churches, and the Ladies in White protest movement suspended their weekly marches after Sunday Mass.

Restrictions on aspects of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) such as these are permitted under Article 18 of the ICCPR, provided they are “prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” However, what is particularly concerning in Cuba’s case is that, even with the permitted activities of religious groups severely curtailed, the authorities continued to target such groups with routine and systematic violations of FoRB.

Business as usual amid unprecedented circumstances

CSW’s latest report on the situation of FoRB on the island finds that “despite social unrest and economic crisis during an unprecedented global pandemic, the government continues to target members of the religious sector and abuse human rights.”

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Voices from Cuba: Alain Toledano Valiente

Apostle Alain Toledano Valiente is a prominent leader in the Apostolic Movement in Cuba. He also leads Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba along with his wife, Marilín Alayo Correa. Pastor Toledano and his wife have experienced intense harassment at the hands of the Cuban authorities for over two decades.

In February 2016, over 200 church leaders in Pastor Toledano’s denomination were detained as the authorities demolished the Emanuel Church building. Pastor Toledano was out of the country at the time. Since then he has been prevented from leaving Cuba, subjected to repeated police summons, and threatened with imprisonment on multiple occasions.

In recent months, Pastor Toledano and his family have continued to experience severe harassment, even in spite of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdown measures.

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Voices from Cuba: Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre

Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre is a journalist, documenter and religious freedom defender in Cuba. Mr Fernández Izaguirre is married with an infant daughter and another child on the way. He was a member of the Apostolic Movement, an independent network of charismatic protestant churches which the government has refused to register. He currently attends an independent Methodist church.

In July 2019 he was detained and held without charge for ten days, the first four of which he was completely incommunicado. He was detained once again for over 24 hours in November 2019, and has faced regular harassment and intimidation at the hands of the Cuban authorities since then.

Mr Fernández Izaguirre has expressed fears to CSW that the Cuban government will attempt to fabricate a criminal case against him as an act of reprisal for his work defending religious freedom.

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Voices from Cuba: Yoel Suárez

On 5 February 2020 Yoel Suárez was summoned to Siboney Police Station in Havana where he was interrogated for three hours by a state security agent who informed him that he had been declared ‘regulado.’ The declaration effectively subjects Mr Suárez to an indefinite ban on international travel, and is a common tactic used by the Cuban authorities to target individuals who they deem ‘politically sensitive’.

As an independent journalist, Mr Suárez has worked with non-state media outlets in Cuba since 2014 and has written extensively about human rights and freedom of religion or belief issues. As a result of his work, he and his family have been subjected to regular harassment at the hands of the Cuban authorities.

Today, over six months later, Mr Suárez remains unable to travel, and he and members of his family have received multiple visits from Cuban state security agents.

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VIDEO: Religious Freedom in Cuba: The lived reality

Marilín Alayo Correa is a Cuban pastor and a leader within the Apostolic Movement. Marilín is also married to Apostle Alain Toledano Valiente, who is one of the key leaders in the Apostolic Movement. As a result of their work, both Marilín and her husband have been extensively targeted by the Cuban authorities for over two decades.

Most recently, Marilín shared a video testimony with CSW reflecting on her family’s story and the situation for religious groups in Cuba nearly 15 years after CSW began documenting the family’s case. In the past year, her husband Alain has also been placed on a travel restriction list and is regularly summoned to appear at their local police station.

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