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US panel on religious freedom reports Cuban violations

A week before Pope Benedict XVI visits Cuba, a U.S. government panelon religious freedom has alleged “serious” violations on the island,including arrests of pastors and “pressure to prohibit democracy andhuman rights activists” from church activities.

The violations also include government “interference in churchaffairs” and controls on “religious belief and practices throughsurveillance and legal restrictions,” said the annual report by theU.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba despite someimprovements,” noted the report, issued Wednesday, which also listed anumber of arrests and pressures on individual religious leaders, allof them Protestant pastors.

The panel also kept Cuba on its “Watch List,” along with Afghanistan,Belarus, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia and Venezuela.Another list of 16 even more worrisome “Countries of ParticularConcern” includes nations, like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Among the improvements, it listed “the relations between the CatholicChurch and Cuban government although the government maintains strictoversight of, and restrictions on, church activities.” It also notedthat Cardinal Jaime Ortega played a role in the process of releasingmore than 120 political prisoners in 2010-2011.

Other improvements included the greater freedom for churches todiscuss politically sensitive issues and more government permissionsto celebrate mass in prisons, carry out humanitarian work and accessthe state’ media monopoly, the report added.

“Things are not improving as much for the Protestant communities,especially the evangelicals, because the government seems to have somedistrust there,” Commission Chairman Leonard Leo told El Nuevo Herald.

The panel describes itself as a bipartisan part of the U.S. governmentwhose nine members, representing many religions, are appointed by theWhite House and Congress leaders to assess religious freedom aroundthe world and make policy recommendations. Established in 1998, it isbased in Washington.

Its latest report came on the eve of Benedict’s three-day visit toCuba, which has sparked hopes for reconciliation among all Cubans, andcomplaints that he does not plan to meet with government opponents.The visit starts Monday.

The 2012 latest report devoted three of its 331 page to detailing itsconcerns on Cuba, where the communist government, officially atheistfrom 1962 to 1992, has recently warmed up relations with the CatholicChurch and Ortega.

During 2011, the report noted, “religious leaders throughout Cubareported increased government surveillance, interference in internalaffairs and pressure to prohibit democracy and human rights activistsfrom participating in their churches’ activities.”

“The Cuban government largely controls religious denominations throughgovernment-authorized surveillance and harassment, and at timesdetentions, of religious leaders and through its implementation oflegal restrictions,” it added.

Churches are required to meet “an invasive registration procedure” atthe Justice Ministry, it added, and only those registered can legallyreceive foreign visitors, import religious materials and apply forpermission to travel abroad for religious purposes.

“Local Communist Party officials must approve all religiousactivities” and the government limits religious activities throughconstruction permits, access to the mass media and approvals forpublications, according to the report.

Authorities also control churches by “limiting the entry of foreignreligious workers; denying Internet access to religious organizations;denying religious literature to persons in prison; denyingpermission to hold processions or events outside religious buildings;and discriminating on the basis of religion in the area ofemployment.”

“Government-supported mobs continued to block members of the Ladies inWhite from attending Sunday mass outside of Havana,” the panel noted.

Among the religious leaders arrested were “dozens” of members of theunregistered Apostolic Reformation, the report added, which attractedpastors from churches in the Cuban Council of Churches, thegovernment-approved umbrella for Protestants.

Baptist pastor and human rights activist Mario Felix Lleonart Barrosowas detained several times in 2011 and government pressures forcedBaptist pastor Homero Carbonell and Methodist pastor Yordi Toranzo toleave their posts, it added.

“Catholic and Protestant church authorities apparently do not lookwell on clerics who challenge the established regulations, and in somecases have transferred priests and pastors to other parishes,” saidMarcos Antonio Ramos, a church historian and retired Miami Baptistpastor.

Apostolic Reformation pastor Gude Pérez was released from jail inApril after serving one-third of a six-year sentence for illiciteconomic activity and falsification of documents, the report noted.The U.S. government granted him asylum, but Cuban officials refuse toallow him to leave the island.

Pastor Robert Rodriguez, who had been under house arrest since 2008,was found not guilty of “offensive behavior” — his denomination’swithdrawal from the Council of Churches.

Other improvements in 2011, the report noted, included fewer reportsof confiscations, fines or evictions from “house churches” — privatehomes used as temples — and increased opportunities to stage publicprocessions and receive aid from abroad.

Among its recommendations for U.S. policies, the panel noted thatWashington should push Cuba to end its violations of freedom ofreligion “prior to considering resuming full diplomatic relations.”

It also endorsed the U.S. Agency for International Development’spro-democracy programs in Cuba, outlawed by the Cuban government asdesigned to topple the communist system.

Washington should “use appropriated funds to advance Internet freedomand protect Cuban activists from harassment and arrests by supportingthe development of new technologies to counter censorship,” thepanel noted.

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