HAVANA, CUBA (Worthy News)– Hundreds of Christians in Cuba were without a place of worship after security forces closed down the Full Gospel Church as part of a government attempt to "destroy" evangelical congregations on the Communist-run island, rights activists said.
The late February crackdown on the 200-member congregation in Havana Province was the latest setback for its pastor, Jesus Hernandez, who was reportedly attacked a week earlier by an armed mob while sleeping at home.
State security agents were seen shutting down and sealing the doors of the Full Gospel Church, located in the province's Lotería neighborhood in Cotorro municipality. They also confiscated the church’s belongings, including chairs and musical instruments, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
The Cuban Communist Party Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), which oversees all religious activity, has denied wrongdoing.
ORA's chief Caridad Diego reportedly said that the church building and everything inside were confiscated because of "a dispute over ownership of the church [building]."
CHURCH DENIES ALLEGATIONS
Church members counter that the church has existed in its present location for more than 15 years, led by the same pastor, without problems.
CSW told Worthy News that the "forced closure and confiscation of church property" followed "a disturbing mob attack" on the home of Pastor Hernandez at 2am while he was asleep inside.
It cited witnesses as saying that the mob carried "sticks, baseball bats and also threatened his teenage son."
Following the violence and "church confiscation" Hernandez and other church leaders failed to "resolve the problem" in meetings with Caridad Diego and other ORA officials, Christians said.
Church leaders said the Full Gospel Church was targeted because of its "consistent and rapid growth" and because of the pastor’s friendship with leaders of the Apostolic Movement, a rapidly expanding network of Charismatic churches.
The government has refused to allow to register the Movement, and Christians claim authorities "openly and aggressively" try "to destroy" it in recent years.
While Full Gospel Church is not affiliated with the Apostolic Movement, Pastor Hernandez maintains "a good relationship with its leadership," CSW said.
CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston told Worthy News that his group remains "deeply concerned by the attack on Pastor Hernandez’ home and the threats against his son."
He said, "The closure of the Full Gospel Church and the confiscation of church property is just one more example of the regular abuse of power committed by Caridad Diego and the ORA."
Cuba says it will respect religious freedom as part of wider reforms, but rights activists and local Christians complaint that the rhetoric is not turned into action towards churches.
Johnston said the Cuban government should "remove authority for all religious activity from ORA and deal with these matters through regular legal channels, which offer recourse for appeal."
He and others urged Cuba's leadership to return the building and properties to members of the Full Gospel Church, but there were no signs Thursday March 14, that authorities were willing to back down.
The controversy emerges while the man named as Cuban President Raul Castro's chief lieutenant and expected successor must quietly fend off any challenges from within the Communist-run island's secretive citadel of power.
Miguel Diaz-Canel has five years to get started, after Castro said last month he would step down at the end of his new term.
Yet, local Christians, rights activists and exiles wonder whether changing the nameplate outside the presidential office will change a system they regard as repressive and autocratic.