By BosNewsLife Americas Service
HAVANA, CUBA (BosNewsLife)-- Christian rights activists said Friday, March 9, they have detected an "increase in religious freedom violations" in Cuba ranging from preventing people to attend church services, to the seizure of church land, harassment, beatings and imprisonment of church leaders.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said it recorded 20 separate incidents targeting Christians, compared with 28 in all of 2011.
CSW said the incidents seem to have increased ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's planned March 26-28 visit.
"A number of Catholic human rights activists, primarily affiliated with the Ladies in White movement, have been arrested or violently prevented from attending church services," the group added.
Activist Caridad 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 since January 8, according rights investigators.
In one of the latest incidents last week, March 4, she and her husband were allegedly halted by security forces while on their way to Mass. They were taken to a police station, where they were treated "roughly and detained in a badly ventilated cell for three hours," CSW said.
"The cell was full of mosquitos, with only a hole in the floor to use as a toilet. Six other women in Holguin city were also prevented from attending church services."
In another incident, a Baptist church in Yaguajay of Sancti Spiritus Province may lose its property as local authorities reportedly claim the church land was nationalized in October 1980. "They are planning to turn over the church property to two state owned companies," CSW told BosNewsLife in a statement.
Pastor Yuri Castellanos and his congregation, backed by the denomination powning the church building, have called for international support in their case. The historic church building belonged to the Western Baptist Convention prior to the "Revolution" that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Another pastor of a Baptist church, linked to the same denomination in the Alamar area of the capital Havana has been repeatedly fined "exorbitant sums of money equivalent to several months’ salary", since December, " because his church building is not registered," Christians said.
However Cuban officials have allegedly refused to register the church adding to fears among Christians that church will be forced to shut down.
Francisco Rodriguez, pastor of Cristo Rompe las Cadenas Church, also in Havana, has reportedly been harassed by authorities in recent weeks, "including threats of physical violence," said CSW. The church is not registered but part of the Western Baptist Convention.
Christians said authorities object to the "church’s ministry" as it involves "vagrants and delinquents, who are mostly young people." A member of a Cuban rap group which is openly critical of the government is also reported to be attending services at the church.
CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston told BosNewsLife that “CSW is deeply concerned at the sharp increase in reported cases of religious freedom violations in Cuba. Our figures are not exhaustive; however they are an indication of a trend which our contacts have confirmed is affecting Christians of all denominations."
He said that, "In the run-up to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, it is apparent that the Cuban authorities are conducting a crackdown on religious freedom, and this must not be allowed to continue unchallenged.”
Cuban authorities had no immediate comment, but have denied wrongdoing in the past.