July 22, 2021 | From Christianity Today
A few days after Hurricane Elsa swept across the center of Cuba, Christians of all denominations joined in a nationwide day of prayer and fasting for their country on Wednesday, July 7. The call was made after months of increasing tension on the island amid severe scarcity of food and medicine and as the number of COVID-19 infections began to rise precipitously and the once-lauded health system threatened to collapse. Church leaders of all denominations reported that they were increasingly under surveillance and had been interrogated and threatened.
Four days later, on Sunday, July 11 in a town outside Havana, people spilled into the streets and marched peacefully and enthusiastically, calling for freedom and chanting “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life,” the title of a hit song released by pro-democracy Cuban hip hop artists earlier this year and a twist on the Cuban Communist Party slogan “Homeland or Death”). They shouted in unison, “We are not afraid!” The demonstration was recorded and shared live via social media by participants and onlookers and, within hours, similar protests involving thousands of people sprang up in cities and towns across the island.
The spontaneity and magnitude of the protests, the likes of which have not been seen in Cuba since the triumph of the revolution in 1959, caught the government off guard. President Miguel Díaz-Canel went on television and made an explicit call to violence, telling the population that he was giving an order to combat and called for true revolutionaries to go into the streets and reclaim them by force. The military, police, and state security agents, both in uniform and plainclothes, flooded into the streets, beating protesters and detaining hundreds.
The total number of Cubans detained or disappeared is still not known but continues to climb. While a few have been released, most remain detained, incommunicado in prisons, police stations, and state security facilities across the country. Many family members of the detainees have reported that the government plans to charge them with “incitement to delinquency” with the aggravating factor of doing so during the “public calamity” of the pandemic. Threatened prison sentences range from eight to 20 years.
Because of the unplanned nature of the protests, those who went out into the streets were from all walks of life: ordinary Cubans, young and old, male and female, and people of all faiths and none. While some human rights and pro-democracy activists joined the marches, many stayed home, concerned that the government would use their participation as an excuse to condemn them to long prison terms.
Church leaders faced the same dilemma. One Protestant church leader told CSW why he had chosen to stay in his home, despite sympathizing with the protesters. “I wanted to go out with all my heart, but I have been under surveillance by state security for months. I know the authorities are looking for any excuse to arrest me. I believe I can do more here in the trenches than I could have done by going into the streets.”
The leader, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, was not wrong. In the days following the protests and detentions he acted as a bridge, putting families of detained Christians in his area—including pastors, other church leaders, and rank and file members—in touch with international advocacy organizations.
In contrast, two Berean Baptist pastors in the province of Matanzas, which has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19, decided to march. Yarian Sierra Madrigal and Yéremi Blanco Ramírez, who also work as tutors at the William Carey Biblical Seminary, were violently detained and have been held incommunicado since then. A witness said he saw the authorities set dogs on Sierra Madrigal as the pastor recorded police violence on his phone before he was arrested.
In a statement and exhortation to prayer sent to CSW, his wife Claudia Salazar said, “My husband Yarian and our friend and brother Yéremi are honorable Cuban citizens. They have dedicated all of their youth and lives to serve the church and to serve others. [They are] family men: loving fathers, loving husbands, with an impeccable life testimony. They are not any kind of delinquent, nor are they low-lifes as those who govern this country call them. They are good men. They are men of God.” . . .
Although the Cuban government attempted to cripple the protest movement by shutting off electricity in some parts of the country and either cutting or severely restricting access to the internet, the protests have continued. Violence has also continued, and despite the difficulties some Cubans have managed to upload to social media graphic video of protesters being beaten and fired upon. There have reportedly been several deaths.
Since the 1960s, Cuban religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations, have hesitated to overtly criticize the government in any way. Repercussions for doing so have been severe. In the days since July 11, however, this too has changed.
The Catholic Bishop’s Conference, a number of other Catholic groups, and major Protestant denominations including the Evangelical League of Cuba, the Methodist Church of Cuba, and the Assemblies of God have published multiple statements condemning the government’s invocation of violence, affirming the right to peaceful freedom of expression and the validity of the protesters’ demands, and calling on the authorities to listen and respond to them. Over the past week, the statements from evangelical denominations have grown stronger. . . .
Notably, the Cuban Council of Churches—an ecumenical umbrella group of religious associations which maintains a good relationship with the government—and its leaders have remained conspicuously silent.
It seems clear that Cuba, which marks the 62nd anniversary of its revolution on Monday, July 26, has reached a turning point. What happens next will depend in part on how severely the government decides to crack down. The mass detentions and threats of long prison sentences seem to indicate it is pursuing a similar strategy to that of the Black Spring of 2003, when about 75 human rights and pro-democracy activists were rounded up across the island and handed sentences of up to 25 years.
There are, however, marked differences between the situation in 2003 and in 2021. The president is no longer a member of the Castro family. Despite government efforts, there is still some access to the internet, social media, and messaging apps, and a tech-savvy population can communicate across and outside the island in a way that was not possible 18 years ago.
Another critical difference is the deep fear of even appearing to criticize the government, which has characterized much of the population—including churches—for decades, appears to be evaporating. Protestant denominations that were deeply divided and suspicious of one another in 2003 have since come together and united, launching the Cuban Evangelical Alliance in 2019. The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) affiliate has remained strong despite the government’s punitive measures and threats against its leadership.
An example of this new unity can be seen in the nationwide and interdenominational day of fasting and prayer for Cuba four days before the demonstrations erupted. Many Christians see a direct connection between the July 7 prayers and the events of July 11. . . .
Evangelical denominations have called for another day of prayer and fasting tomorrow, July 21 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern time, to focus on salvation, healing, and peace in Cuba. . . .
What are your thoughts on Cuban religious leaders praying and fasting for change to happen in Cuba? Let us know your thoughts and prayers in the comments below!
(Excerpt from Christianity Today. Article written by Anna-lee Stangl. Photo by IStock)