By BosNewsLife Americas Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
HAVANA, CUBA (BosNewsLife)- An evangelical pastor and his family were homeless Monday, July 7, after government forces destroyed their home in eastern Cuba which was used as a house church, Christians said.
Pastor Esmir Torreblanca's house in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba was demolished last week by what activists called "Cuban government agents, including state security and Cuban Communist Party officials" as part of a wider crackdown on devoted Christians.
The building housed his Establishing the Kingdom of God Church, affiliated with the Apostolic Movement, a fast growing network of churches which the government views as illegal.
Witnesses said the unannounced attack began early on July 2 while the pastor, his wife and their young children, aged two and seven, were sleeping inside.
"They arrived and violently broke down the front door which was locked. The police entered with batons alongside a group of men carrying machetes," said Pastor Marcos A Perdomo Silva, in published remarks. "They began to destroy and occupy the properties of the pastor and the church.”
BULLDOZER DESTROYING BUILDING
Agents were seen directing a bulldozer destroying the building. State security agents and police dressed in civilian clothes reportedly cordoned off the block, using patrol cars, ambulances and trucks.
Contents of the home and church were apparently carried away. Church members tried to break through the barriers but their identification documents were confiscated and they were threatened with detention, Christians said.
Officials have defended the crackdown. In 2010 the director of the Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, Caridad Diego, reportedly announced that her office wanted to eradicate the Apostolic Movement, and activists have said that its leaders have been threatened, harassed or sometimes jailed.
The incidents came shortly after religious freedom activists Reverend Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso and his wife Yoaxis Marcheco Suarez were temporarily detained by Cuban police in the municipality of Camajuaní on June 22, according to Christians familiar with the case.
Yet laptop computers and a memory flash drive containing music used in their church services were apparently confiscated.
Lieonart, who leads the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Taguayabon village in Cuba's central province Villa Clara, was previously detained. Agents were said to have taken his DNA and scent samples after he refused to sign an official warning that could be used as evidence for future arrests.
He was also involved in establishing the Villa Clara-based Patmos Institute, an independent inter-denominational forum to promote Christian intellectual thought.
Before his June 21 detention, Reverend Lleonart and another Patmos Institute leader, Priest Felix Ben Castilla of the Vetero-Catholic Church, were detained along with Cuban singer David Omni.
They were captured June 6 while travelling between locations during an interdenominational series of concerts celebrating Pentecost, Christians said.
Reverend Lleonart claimed agents told him he was detained for “for being a bad father.” They were released without charge, but Ben Castilla was temporarily detained again on June 11, activists said.
These are no isolated incidents. Human rights activists claim to have recorded more than 130 violations of religious freedom in Cuba since January this year in what they call a wider trend. At least 185 violations were recorded in 2013, up from 120 in 2012, according to estimates by advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
The government of Communist-run Cuba allows Christians to worship within government sanctioned denominations.
Cuba's leader Raul Castro has come under pressure to increase religious and political freedom after easing some restrictions on personal freedoms by lifting bans on mobile phones and home computers while abolishing the need of citizens to buy expensive exit visas when travelling abroad as tourists.
Critics say however that the crackdown suggests the atheistic Communist Party's unwillingness to end its decades long grip on power since Castro's brother, Fidel, brought revolution to Cuba in the 1950s and created the western hemisphere's first Communist state.
Raul Castro has said he is willing to respond to criticism and enter into dialogue with the nearby United States, but insisted that Cuba's Communist system remained non-negotiable.
(BosNewsLife (2004-2014) is the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians. It has been 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since May 2004).
Please help BosNewsLife to remain a voice of the voiceless. Click here for a subscription.
Follow BosNewsLife via Twitter