President Obama’s Visit to Cuba Sparks Religious Liberty Discussion

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As President Obama prepares to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, a U.S. senator has said further steps to normalize relations with Cuba could hinder the advance of religious freedom in the island nation.

Cuban Southern Baptists hold a range of views about the effect of strengthened U.S.-Cuba ties on religious liberty. For example, a Maryland pastor told Baptist Press normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba will enable the latter’s oppressive communist government. A Kentucky minister said closer ties will help persecuted Cuban believers.

Two Cuban-American GOP presidential candidates with Southern Baptist ties — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — have opposed Obama’s strategy of warming America’s relations with Cuba.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., wrote a Feb. 18 letter to Obama expressing concern over “the United States’ increasingly close relations” with Cuba and India — “nations that have not protected the religious liberty and human rights of their people.”

Cuba, Lankford noted, has been classified since 2004 as a “Tier 2” nation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), denoting a need for “close monitoring due to violations of religious freedom.”

“I am concerned by Cuba’s lack of attention to protecting religious liberty and human rights,” Lankford wrote. “As such, I request that the Administration reconsider any further steps to normalize relations with Cuba or financially benefit their oppressive government. Since relations have already significantly changed, I encourage the Administration to use this new relationship to encourage the Cuban government to respect the religious liberty and human rights of their citizens.”

Obama announced in December 2014 the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic relations after a 50-year freeze dating back to the beginning of communist rule in Cuba. The president has met twice with Cuban President Raúl Castro, and the two nations opened embassies in one another’s capitals last year. Obama has removed Cuba from America’s State Sponsor of Terrorism list and loosened travel and export restrictions, including a mid-February agreement to reestablish direct passenger and cargo flights between the two countries.

In announcing Obama’s March visit to Cuba, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Feb. 18 the trip will mark “another demonstration of the president’s commitment to chart a new course for U.S.-Cuban relations and connect U.S. and Cuban citizens,” The Wall Street Journal reported. The visit will include, Earnest said, “expressing our support for human rights.”

Lankford, a Southern Baptist, noted his concern that the Cuban government “continues to routinely harass smaller, independent churches” while granting “pockets of permitted freedoms” to Roman Catholics and major Protestant denominations that register with the state.

USCIRF’s 2015 annual report stated “serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba despite improvements for government-approved religious groups. The government continues to detain and harass religious leaders and laity, interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.

“Despite constitutional protections for religious freedom, the Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies and government-authorized surveillance and harassment,” according to USCIRF.

Cuba’s two Baptist conventions, for example, “continued to report surveillance and harassment by state officials, including receiving death threats and being victims of ‘acts of repudiation.’ The two denominations also reported increased threats of church destruction or confiscation,” USCIRF reported.

Gus Suarez, pastor of Hispanic ministries at First Baptist Church in Laurel, Md., told BP he agrees with Lankford’s call to halt normalization of relations with Cuba. Suarez fled Cuba in 1963 as an elementary school student and has never returned.

“I am opposed to President Obama’s decision to strengthen diplomatic ties with Cuba,” Suarez told BP in written comments. “This relationship will only help an old sinking communist ship stay somewhat economically afloat. The real beneficiaries are not the common people but the government. I am in agreement with Senator Lankford when he said, ‘Religious liberty is a basic human right and one that is denied to many people across the world.’ Until such time as Cuba makes a real commitment to religious liberty and human rights, there should not be any diplomatic relationship.”

Suarez remembers experiencing indoctrination to the Cuban government’s atheistic worldview in first grade when his teacher told all her students to close their eyes and open their hands. She placed a piece of candy in each student’s hands, then instructed the students to open their eyes and asked, “Who gave you that candy?” When Suarez answered, “God gave us the candy,” the teacher told him God did not exist and that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro gave him the candy.

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
David Roach