Bipartisan panel urges Cuba to end religious repression

WASHINGTON (BP)--A bipartisan religious liberty panel in the United States has called on Cuba's communist government to institute protections for religious expression and other human rights in the wake of Fidel Castro's departure as president.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said Castro's resignation after nearly 50 years as dictator over the northern Caribbean island provides an opportunity for Cuba's new leaders "to reform their repressive practices."

Citing health reasons, Castro, 81, resigned Feb. 19. The National Assembly selected his brother, Raul, 76, as president Feb. 24. It also named as first vice president José Ramón Machado Ventura, 76, who is reputedly a Communist hard-liner fiercely loyal to the Castros, according to The New York Times.

The commission has "no illusions about Raul Castro's political views," USCIRF Chairman Michael Cromartie said in a written statement, but the panel still called for change in Cuba and for the United States government to press for reform.

"Today the Cuban government has the chance to fulfill its obligation to correct past wrongs and fully protect religious freedom," Cromartie said. "Cuba's future is best assured by fully protecting, in law and practice, the fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, association and other human rights."

In its Feb. 26 statement, the USCIRF reiterated recommendations it has made to the federal government regarding Cuba. The commission urged the United States to use comprehensive diplomatic measures to call on the Cuban government to take the following steps, as well as others:

-- Amend restrictions on religious services in houses and other anti-religious measures so they meet international standards;

-- Stop interfering in the affairs of religious groups;

-- Command state security personnel to quit fomenting violence against religious adherents and human rights workers.

Since 2004, the USCIRF has had Cuba on its watch list of countries that need close monitoring because of violations of religious liberty. Though the government rescinded its atheistic policy in the early 1990s, improvements in religious freedoms were rolled back beginning in 2003, according to the commission. A 2005 law supposedly intended to "legalize" houses churches actually aided the government's attempts to control some religious exercise, the panel reported.

""Fidel Castro's nearly 50-year-old rule was marked by a stormy, and sometimes brutal, relationship with Cuba's religious communities, including arrests, deportations and severe restrictions on religious activities," Cromartie said. "Religious life has been unjustly repressed and controlled by his government, and generations of Cuban religious adherents have suffered."

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was established in 1998 to advise the White House and Congress on global religious freedom issues. The president selects three members of the nine-person panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department's ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a USCIRF vice chairman and is serving his sixth year on the panel.

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