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HAVANA, CUBA (BosNewsLife) -- A prominent evangelical church leader in Cuba will be put on trial next week and is facing a one-year prison sentence as part of what his supporters call "a government campaign to silence and discredit him," because of his refusal to work with the state-backed church organization, a Christian advocacy group confirmed Saturday, December 27.
UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said Reverend Robert Rodriguez, pastor of the Los Pinos Nuevos de Sagua la Grande Church and national president of the Interdenominational Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors and Ministers in Cuba (CIMPEC) would face a court Monday, December 29, after he and his son, and fellow pastor, Eric Gabriel Rodriguez del Toro were accused of â€œoffensive behaviorâ€ by a neighbor.
The neighbor "has carried out a government-campaign of harassment with the apparent support of local government officials, against the families for a number of years," CSW told BosNewsLife.
"Prosecutors are requesting that Pastor Rodriguez be given a one-year prison sentence," during the trial on Monday, December 29, the group added. There was no immediate comment from Cuban officials.
Pastor Eric Gabriel Rodriguez, who lives in Placetas in north-central Cuba, was tried on December 8 and was sentenced to a suspended jail sentence. However, "any problems with authorities will result in him being
sent to prison," CSW explained.
Church leaders in the Communist-run island reportedly fear that authorities have been using the charges by the neighbor as a pretext for possibly imprisoning Rodriguez and his son. "They believe that the real reason behind this trial lies in the withdrawal of CIMPEC from the Cuban Council of Churches in September of this year, under the leadership of Reverend Rodriguez, CSW added.
CIMPEC published an open letter, saying they withdrew from the Cuban Council of Churches because of its alleged "illegal interference" in internal CIMPEC affairs.
CSW said it comes at a time when religious freedom in Cuba "worsened significantly over the past year. "Another church leader, Pastor Omar Gude Perez has been imprisoned since May without being brought to trial."
Church leaders in Cuba have said these developments illustrate "a pattern of official intolerance towards religious leaders who resist government interference in church organizations."
In October, government authorities stripped Reverend Rodriguez of his position as president of CIMPEC, a move members reportedly condemned as "unconstitutional" as it was done without their involvement or approval.
"Since then, they say, the families have been subjected to a campaign of accusations and harassment, culminating in this trial," CSW said. The group added that Reverend Rodriguezâ€™s health "has suffered as a result of the situation."
He reportedly had problems with his kidneys and lost "thirty pounds over the past few months," CSW added. A local official, Romulo Palacios, reportedly physically mistreated him when he and his son presented themselves at the local police station in Placetas Municipality.
There was no independent confirmation of the attack, however several dissidents and rights groups have expressed concerns over police abuses and what they say is mistreatment of prisoners in the country.
CSW National Director Stuart Windsor said his group is "deeply concerned for the well-being of Reverend Rodriguez and call on the Cuban authorities to drop the charges against him and his son." The family was notified the day after Christmas and only three days before the scheduled trial, according to CSW investigators. This, "indicates that the authorities are hoping that this will go unnoticed outside of the country," Windsor said. "The international community must make it clear to the Cuban government that this is unacceptable and that religious freedom must be respected."
The trial comes just days before Cubans on the island nation will recall the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of President Fulgencio Batista and the promise of Fidel Castro's movement on January 1m 1959. However dissidents have said the promise of more freedom and prosperity didn't last. Cuba has been a one-party state led by Castro and - since February 2008 - by his anointed successor, younger brother Raul.
Although Raul Castro eased some restrictions on personal freedoms by lifting bans on mobile phones and home computers, his recent choice of first vice-president came as a shock to those hoping that a new generation might
begin shaping the country's future, analysts say.
He picked Machado Ventura - a hard line politburo member and one of the original leaders of the revolution - as his number two. That move has added to concerns among Christians and dissidents that those seen as opposing the regime remain targets of persecution. (With reporting by Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife).
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