By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
HAVANA, CUBA (BosNewsLife)-- Cuban authorities are targeting a top religious rights advocate and other activists as well as Christian leaders with travel bans and visits by security agents amid growing tensions with Washington, BosNewsLife established Thursday, June 22.
Advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) told BosNewsLife that Felix Llerena López, a prominent religious rights defender, was preparing to board his flight Saturday, June 19, "when state security agents approached him and took him into an office where they informed him that he was barred from leaving the country."
Llerena López learned that it had been put in place after he returned from a visit to the United States in May, his first trip outside of Cuba.
He works with the Patmos Institute, an independent civil society organization, which promotes freedom of religion or belief and inter-religious dialogue. While Llerena López was in the U.S., he raised concern about rights violations in Ciba during meetings with government officials and members of Congress arranged by CSW, organizers said.
Llerena Lopez was expelled from university shortly after his return, activists said.
Elsewhere a well-known leader in the Apostolic Movement of Christians, Pastor Alain Toledano, was visited by state security agents and Communist Party officials at his home in Santiago de Cuba, according to Christian rights investigators. They reportedly showed him an ‘acta de advertencia’, or a pre-arrest warrant, which he fears may also be used to block him from traveling abroad.
“…the strategy that the police are using here is that they come one by one to the house, they don't send a citation, anything written down," said Pastor Toledano said in published remarks.
"And they don’t give you a copy of the ‘actas de advertencia’ against you, even if you ask for one since they know it can be used against them," he added. "They are perfecting their methods so as not to leave any traces of their persecution and acts of evil against the churches and ministries, even as we suffer here in the country,” the pastor claimed in a statement distributed by CSW and obtained by BosNewsLife.
"We are deeply concerned by what has happened to Felix Llerena López and Pastor Toledano over the past week," said CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas.
He explained that CSW condemns "what appears to be a wider strategy of arbitrarily blocking...human rights and democracy activists, including religious leaders and [religious rights] defenders, from leaving the country."
News about the reported crackdown comes after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new policy directing the Treasury Department to end a standard method of visiting the Communist-run nation by stopping individual people-to-people travel.
The U.S. embargo technically bans tourism, but under the previous Obama administration, relaxed regulations allowed
Americans to visit Cuba under people-to-people travel.
Under the new regulations, Americans pursuing this type of trip would have to go in groups. The president said that the United States don't want to finance a leadership violating religious and other human rights. He called the administration of Raul Castro a "brutal, brutal regime," and condemned a reported crackdown and imprisonment of religious worshippers in the island country.
"We will not be silenced in the face of communist oppression any longer," Trump stressed last week in front of an excited crowd in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida. Trump confirmed he wanted to ensure that American money spent in Cuba will go to the Cuban people instead of the Cuban government.
Though the government dropped the requirement for an exit visa in 2013, well-informed Christians say an increasing number of Cuban rights activists barred from leaving the country.
CSW cited as an example Karina Gálvez, who works with Convivencia, an independent civil society organization in Pinar del Rio.
"The government has brought trumped up charges against her which prevent her from leaving the country. In other cases, like that of Llerena López and also Berta Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White Movement who was prevented from leaving the country last month, officials have simply blocked them from boarding flights out of the country with no official justification given."
Thomas said CSW had urged the Western governments to intervene. "We call on the European Union, the United States, and other members of the international community to raise this with the Cuban authorities," he added.
Thomas explained that it was crucial to "push for the right of freedom of movement to be respected for all, especially those who are involved in peaceful religious activities and the promotion of universally recognized human rights."
Communist officials view devoted influential Christians and activists as a threat to their power base, BosNewsLife learned, though authorities maintain they are open for sensible reforms.