In Depth: The Process of Church Confiscations in Cuba

Update: In May 2017 CSW received further information on the status of the AoG churches. Please read the latest information here.


 

In August 2016, CSW’s latest report on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in Cuba detailed FoRB violations including the destruction of church property, arbitrary detention and harassment of religious leaders, and the demolition and confiscation of church buildings.

There has been some misreporting in the media about the situation concerning churches belonging to the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination, in particular the situation regarding 1,400 AoG churches that are in the process of being expropriated by the government; 100 of which are under threat of demolition.

As CSW’s report explains, between January and July 2016 there was a continuation of serious FoRB violations in Cuba: “In line with previous years, these religious freedom violations are predominantly carried out by Cuban government officials and the Office of Religious Affairs (the ORA), and take place in many regions throughout the island.”

“In 2015 around 2,000 churches linked to the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination, the largest Protestant denomination in Cuba, were declared illegal by the government. 1,400 of these church buildings, many of which are house churches, are in the process of being expropriated by the government – despite the fact that the denomination has refused to sign the orders of confiscation. Although the government made verbal promises in early 2016 to the denominational leadership not to go ahead with the expropriation, neither the ORA nor the Ministry of Housing have made any effort to halt this process.”

No churches have yet been seized, as indeed the AoG World Missions has stated; however the process of expropriation is underway and the status of the churches has not officially been changed.

The legislation under which the AoG churches were declared illegal is Legal Decree 322. As CSW’s report states: “This legislation, which was announced on 5 September 2014 and came into effect on 5 January 2015, was supposedly established to regulate private properties and enforce zoning laws. However, it has been and is being used by government officials to seize church properties.”

The report also notes that government has failed to honour its verbal assurances to religious groups in the past: “The government has also failed to keep its promises to other churches and religious groups. The Maranatha Baptist Church, part of the Eastern Baptist Convention, was notified in December 2015 that the order for the confiscation of their church under Legal Decree 322 had been rescinded. They were informed that they would also be able to build a new church, as the current building is in poor condition and too small for their congregation of 800. However, the government has not followed through with the necessary permits for the new construction.”

In its report , CSW makes the following recommendations to the Cuban government:

  • Respond to increasing calls by many religious leaders and their congregations for better protection of FoRB, by abolishing the Office for Religious Affairs (ORA) and adopting legislation that facilitates the registration process and protects FoRB for all.
  • Reform Legal Decree 322 to ensure it cannot be used to arbitrarily expropriate property, including property belonging to religious associations.
  • Nullify the designation of 2,000 Assemblies of God churches across the country as illegal, halt the process of confiscating 1400 of those churches, and cease the demolitions of other church properties.

CSW stands with all religious groups in Cuba who are facing freedom of religion or belief violations.

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In the Lead up to the G20 Summit, Questions Must be Asked About the Direction China is Taking.

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Authorities remove cross from church in Zhejiang Province, China. Photo: Weibo, courtesy of ChinaChange.org

When leaders of the G20 nations arrive in Zhejiang Province, China, next week for the G20 summit, they will be greeted by a different skyline than they might have seen five years ago.

The sky scrapers and shopping malls that have become the hallmark of China’s phenomenal economic growth will still be there, but the bright red Christian crosses which were once just as much a feature of Zhejiang have been taken down.

Removal of crosses in Zhejiang Province

Hundreds of crosses have been removed by the authorities since early 2014, as part of a campaign allegedly introduced to rid the province of structures which violate building regulations. Under draft regulations, crosses now have to be flat against outer walls, and their size and colour are restricted. The authorities have sometimes employed violent tactics in the face of protests by church members. Christian leaders who have opposed the cross removals through letters or peaceful gatherings have been arrested and accused of economic crimes.

It may be no coincidence that the site of the cross removal campaign is the same province selected to host the G20.

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The Importance of China’s Rights Lawyers to the Chinese Church

In October 2014, the Chinese Communist Party announced that rule of law would be a top priority for the country. However, just one year later, over 150 lawyers and 150 more colleagues, family members and other activists had been questioned, detained, or disappeared in a crackdown which began on 9 July 2015.

Journalists and legal experts have speculated about what ‘strengthening rule of law’ might mean for China’s ruling Party: whatever it means, it doesn’t seem to include rights lawyers.

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Crackdown on the Cuban Church

CSW’s 2015 report on violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba detailed an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum.

Figures compiled by CSW, which are not exhaustive but which serve as an indicator of the level of FoRB violations, reveal a tenfold increase – with 2,300 separate violations recorded in 2015 compared to 220 in 2014.

Many incidents involved entire churches or, in the case of arrests, dozens of victims.

Commenting on the findings, CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “CSW doesn’t use the word ‘unprecedented’ lightly to refer to violations of freedom of religion or belief in Cuba in 2015. Following an upward trend in violations in recent years, 2015 witnessed a spike as the authorities deployed ever more public and brutal tactics to target churches across the denominational spectrum, regardless of their legal status.”

“It is clear that despite promises of reform, the government is determined to maintain a tight grip on civil society, including churches. We commend the courage of religious groups who have spoken out publicly to denounce these violations and to call for the right to freedom of religion or belief to be upheld. We urge the international community to stand with them and to hold Cuba to account for these human rights violations,” he added.

Below is a digital illustration highlighting the crackdown on churches in Cuba.

Click here to read CSW’s report in full.

 

Religious Leaders as Human Rights Defenders?

In the early hours of 1 July 2015, Pastor Hafiz Mengisto, senior minister of the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church in Sudan, was arrested after trying to prevent police officers from demolishing a building on church property, which they did not have authorisation to do. While in police custody, he sustained injuries to his head and ear that required medical attention upon his release. Pastor Mengisto was only acquitted of ‘obstructing a public servant from performing the duties of his office’ on 29 December 2015.

While his acquittal is welcome, his case is not an isolated incidence of harassment but is indicative of a continued and wide crackdown on human rights defenders (HRDs) – including religious leaders or members of faith communities making a stand for human rights within their community. HRDs face various challenges ranging from de jure discrimination and bureaucratic hassles to harassment, violence, torture and murder.

Is the international community waking up to reprisals against HRDs?

In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst drew attention to the “disturbing increase in the number of reprisals and acts of intimidation reported by defenders.” Today, thousands of human rights activists across the world face severe intimidation and harassment. One of the most difficult countries for human rights defenders is China where at least half of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers – many of them Christians – have been interrogated, detained and in some cases disappeared since 9 July 2015. At least 30 of the over 300 HRD’s interrogated during this period, as well as others connected to them, have vanished into China’s detention system.

Since the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998), the international community has increasingly recognised the role of HRDs in promoting human rights. The work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has been instrumental in this. Moreover, the adoption of UN resolutions on human rights defenders has ensured that their situation remains visible in international human rights platforms.

In November 2015, the UN General Assembly passed an important resolution calling for states to adopt strong and effective measures to protect human rights defenders. The resolution was passed with 117 countries voting for it and 14 countries – including several Human Rights Council members such as Pakistan, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia – voting against. A further 40 countries abstained from the vote. It’s clear that many countries, including several members of the Human Rights Council, still remain uncomfortable with the work of HRDs.

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Church Demolitions Highlight Increase in FoRB Violations in Sudan

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Sudan: Lutheran Church destroyed, October 2015

Both during and after the plebiscite for South Sudan’s independence in 2011, President al Bashir stated repeatedly that Sudan’s new constitution will be based 100% on Shari’a and that the ethnically and religiously diverse nation will be Arabic and Islamic.

For Sudan’s Christian community, an outworking of this explicit promise to erode religious and ethnic diversity has been the demolition churches, at the same time as permission to apply for new church building licences is withheld. The targeting of places of worship is just one example of ongoing repression of Christians and other religious minorities in the country.

A case in point: on 21 October 2015, a church building in Omdurman that was used by the Lutheran and Lutheran Evangelical Church was demolished. In the same week, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Gadaref, East Sudan was burned down by unknown arsonists.

Legal and Political Context

The government of Sudan has repeatedly used the independence of South Sudan as an excuse to pursue an accelerated agenda of Islamization and Arabization. In 2013, the Ministry for Guidance and Endowments, which oversees religious affairs in the country, announced that no new church licences would be issued due to a lack of worshipers and an increase in abandoned churches after South Sudan seceded. This policy was reiterated in July 2014, just weeks after Sudan was the target of a successful international campaign to free Meriam Ibrahim, a young, pregnant mother who was sentenced to death for apostasy. The government’s defiant statement appeared to be in response to international pressure for Sudan to protect the rights of its religious minorities. Once again the government justified its policy as being a response to the changes in religious demography since South Sudanese Christians left Sudan in 2010.

Confiscation and demolition of places of worship

While the Ministry of Guidance and Endowments stopped issuing church licences, local government (particularly in Khartoum and Omdurman) continued confiscating and demolishing church properties, ostensibly to make way for development projects.

This was the case for the Lutheran and Lutheran Evangelical Church in Omdurman; local officials informed church leaders the building was listed for demolition on 20 October due to development work in the area. After appealing to the State Governor, church leaders were assured the building would not be affected.

However, it was demolished the next day, while a mosque less than 100 meters away on the same plot of land was left standing. This is not the first time a Christian place of worship and a Muslim place of worship have been treated differently.

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