By BosNewsLife Americas Service
HAVANA, CUBA (BosNewsLife)-- As the countdown began Thursday, March 1, for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba this month, there were reports that authorities have barred several known dissidents and their family members from attending church services, while several pastors were mistreated.
Among those being targeted is Caridad Caballero Batista of 'Ladies in White', a group marching for the release of religious and political prisoners on the Communist-run island, Christian rights activists said.
Since January 8, Caballero Batista, her husband and 19 year-old son "have been barred by the authorities from attending Catholic catechism classes and participating in any other religious activity," confirmed advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in a statement to BosNewsLife.
Security forces have reportedly surrounded Batista's family home each Sunday, preventing them from attending Sunday mass at the Jesus Christ Redeemer Church in the Pueblo Nuevo neighborhood of Holguin City, in eastern Cuba.
In published remarks, she said the agents have also followed her husband, Esteban Sade Suarez, and son, Erik Esteban Sade Caballero, on their way to attend catechism, and "physically" and sometimes "violently" prevented them from attending.
Elsewhere, four Protestant church leaders were also mistreated and detained on February 25 in Bayamo, Granma Province, while evangelizing in the local bus station, Christians said. One of those captured, Juan Moreno, was allegedly so badly beaten by state security agents that he had to be hospitalized. The other three were released after being held for several hours, CSW said.
In Batista's case the harassment has made it apparently difficult to complete to receive their First Communion Confirmation, a Catholic tradition, after completing two years of catechism. “God made us free and we are not going to stop trying to go to church,” Caballero Batista said in remarks distributed by CSW.
“We want to receive communion and be confirmed in our church and we have worked hard for this. While are all sinners and need forgiveness, we have not broken any laws. All we ask is that the government respect our religious freedom.” She added that her son is not involved in any political activities or affiliated
with any civil society group.
Across the island, members of the Ladies in White group, the majority of whom are Roman Catholic, are reportedly being prevented each Sunday by state security agents from attending religious services or "severely harassed" when they attempt to do so, CSW said.
The group said there has been "a sharp increase in cases of religious freedom violations" ahead of the pope's March 26-28 visit.
CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said that as Cuba prepares for Pope Benedict XVI's arrival " authorities must be held to account for their continuous and escalating violations of religious freedom."
He said his group has urged authorities to cease the harassment as "attacks on those who are merely trying to practice their religious faith must stop.”
Cuban authorities have denied wrongdoing and the existence of "dissidents", describing them instead as "mercenaries of the United States" who are aimed at undermining the island's social revolution.