By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
WASHINGTON/HAVANA (BosNewsLife)– Christian activists planned prayers near the White House Sunday to express concern that Barack Obama will be the first American president visiting Cuba in nearly 90 years, despite a reported crackdown on churches and other rights abuses on the Communist-run island.
“In the past two years, 100 churches have been demolished in Cuba with over 2,000 shut down,”said Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a pastor and director of the well-informed pressure group Christian Defense Coalition based in Washington, D.C. Especially evangelical churches and those who refuse or cannot register with authorities have been targeted as well as devoted Christians, BosNewsLife established.
“It is very troubling and disturbing that President Obama is more interested in releasing terrorists from Cuban prisons than he is for publicly working to release Christians, political dissidents and human rights activists from Cuban jails,” Mahoney added.
Mahoney has long supported religious freedom and human rights in Cuba: As a pastor in south Florida, he was a vocal opponent of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and led demonstrations in Washington against the return to Cuba of Elian Gonzalez, a young Cuban boy whose mother drowned while trying to escape to the United States.
Though Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl, who took over as president, pledged reforms, little has changed, said Mahoney. “There has also been increased persecution on political dissidents and critics of the Castro government. President Obama needs to be reminded, as he shakes the hand of Castro and other Cuban leaders, he is shaking the hands of leaders who have brutalized their citizens, killed those who disagreed with them, crushed human rights and persecuted the Cuban church and religious freedom.”
“CRUSHING HUMAN RIGHTS”
Organizers said the prayer vigil was to be held Sunday, March 20, at 15:00 hours local time in front of the White House (Pennsylvania Ave. NW side). During the rally, leaders were also expected to speak out publicly against the Castro government’s policy of “religious persecution against Christians along with crushing human rights and free speech of political dissidents.”
President Obama was scheduled to arrive in Cuba on Sunday, March 20, with First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, for a full-family, two-day effort to push to normalize relations, complete with cultural tours, a baseball game and even dinner at the Palace of the Revolution, the seat of President Raúl Castro’s autocratic government.
Obama will not meet or appear near the president’s brother, Fidel Castro, who led the communist revolution in the 1950s and ruled until 2008, according to American officials. Now 89, he is rarely seen in public. Obama was also to meet Cardinal Ortega, a Catholic leader who worked with Pope Francis on the effort to bring the two countries to the negotiating table.
Media is strictly controlled in Cuba, but trip planners say Obama will be able to interact with Cubans when he meets a select group of Cuban entrepreneurs, talks with human rights activists and gives a broad address to the Cuban people.
“We see this speech as a unique moment obviously in the history between our countries,” Senior Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters ahead of the trip. “This is the first visit of a U.S. President in nearly 90 years, certainly the first speech given by a President on Cuban soil in nearly 90 years and an opportunity for the president to engage the Cuban people with his vision for the future.”
PRIVATE MEETINGS CRITICIZED
Yet, Sunday’s prayer vigil organizers said the Obama administration cannot move forward with the normalization of relations with Cuba while “gross violations of human rights and religious freedom” are taking place.
“We are not interested in President Obama having ‘private’ meetings with leaders on these matters. He must address them publicly,” Mahoney said. “We will continue to pray for our brothers and sisters and stand in solidarity with them in their desire to freely and openly worship God.”
Cassandra Collins, communications director for Hillside Missions Organization agrees. Based in Richmond, Virginia, the non-profit group has been supporting Christians in Cuba and some 30 other nations. “In response to the ongoing persecution of church communities in Cuba” Hillside Missions is joining Mahoney “to pray for Christians around Cuba,” she added.
“The ongoing repression of Christianity, closure of churches, and arrests of pastors in Cuba demands a response from us. Hillside Missions is praying for the reopening of churches and for Cuban Christians to have the freedom to meet and worship freely,” Collins stressed.
She made clear that vigil participants urge Christians who can’t participate in Sunday’s event “to join us in prayer for Cuban Christians, and to advocate for religious freedom in Cuba.”