Dictatorship


One of the most frequent questions I’m faced with in advocacy and awareness raising work is: “Why?”

It can be very difficult to come up with an answer or to begin to attempt to explain how a repressive regime or a dictator “thinks”.

There is a great quote today in the Washington Post (which has been doing some fantastic coverage of Cuba recently) by Yoani Sánchez, the internationally recognized blogger responsible for Generacion Y (and long time friend of Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso and Yoaxis Marcheco, who have featured frequently on this blog). She’s talking specifically about Cuba, but her comment applies to pretty much every repressive regime I’ve come across:

Ms. Sánchez reminded us that such arbitrariness is characteristic of authoritarianism. “It is hard to think like a repressor, if you have never been one,” she said. “They have their own logic. One of the most paralyzing elements of the Cuban repression is its illogical nature.”

Click here for the full article.

Once upon a time there was a people who lived in the misty hills and cool mountaintops of a distant land. Although they were the same people, from hamlet to hamlet and valley to valley they spoke many languages and dialects. They could not understand one another.

They shared a belief however, in The Almighty One, who was over all things. To honor Him, they placed large stones and wooden poles in the high places – so that they would be visible to all who lived in that land.

More than one hundred years ago, some men and women who were not from there arrived. They said they had come to share good news. The elders recognized the Almighty One of whom the strangers spoke. They embraced this good news. Although they still could not always understand one another, this good news united their people, and they were one.

On the high places they built crosses, twenty and thirty feet tall, to remind themselves that their land was under Christ and they were all His people.

Then some other people came. They were from the same country, although from a different people. They came from the plains with different beliefs and they were the rulers over the hill people. In the space of twenty-five years they established fifty-four military bases in the hill lands. With the military bases came violence and rape and fear.

The rulers said that all of the people in the country must be the same: one country, one religion, one language. There could be no differences. One by one, they destroyed the crosses that had stood upon the high places. They forced the people, even the children and the elderly, to carry bricks to build shrines to the other religion. They placed loudspeakers so that the valleys and mountainsides would ring with the sound of the other prayers. They said this way the people would know that their land did not belong to Christ.

They told the people they could not build churches. They would not allow them to repair their old ones and the buildings crumbled. They told the people they had to request permission to hold religious celebrations and Bible camps. The people requested permission but their requests went unanswered.

Then the rulers sent men to the poorest villages. These men told the people there that they would give their children an education. They would give their parents bags of rice and oil and clothes if they would permit them to take their children to their schools. The children had no other chance of an education and the parents thought that this was good.

They did not know that when the little children arrived at the school, they would be forbidden from speaking their language. They did not know that the children would be forced to recite scriptures from the other religion and beaten with sticks if they made a mistake. They did not know they would be stopped from giving thanks to the Almighty One before they ate. They did not know that their children would be forced to convert to the other religion, and if they refused they would be sent to the military, to the front lines, to be killed. They did not know that the purpose of the schools was to eradicate their culture, their faith, their heritage, their identity.

A young man from the hills saw his people suffering. His grandfather and father were pastors but they told him he could serve the Almighty One is other ways. He traveled for eight months through the land, hiding from the rulers and the soldiers, and wrote down the stories of his people. Then he left his land and he journeyed to distant countries to tell others about what was happening and to ask them to help.

Now he is in the land from whence came the first foreigners bringing the good news. He is asking us to stand with his people again. He is asking us not to forget his people and others like them. He is asking our rulers to remember them and to help them.

“Surely,” he says, “the Almighty One is God over the hills, but He is also the God of the people of the plains and He can reach them.” (I Kings 20)

Pray for Burma and for all of its peoples. Pray for the Chin. Pray for the delegation that is traveling to raise awareness of the suffering of their people. Pray for true freedom, including religious freedom, for the Burmese, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, Kachin, Rohingya, and Chin.

Read the report documenting the persecution of ethnic Chin Christians in Burma

Chin Christians praying for forgiveness over a destroyed hill cross. Photo courtesy of Chin Human Rights Organisation www.chro.ca

Chin Christians praying for forgiveness over a destroyed hill cross. Photo courtesy of Chin Human Rights Organisation http://www.chro.ca

Here is one of the big reasons: Kenia Denis

For anyone looking for things to do this weekend, the Guardian has published a couple of great articles on a couple of countries where I work – all worth reading and situations definitely worth praying for:

On questions of justice, stolen land, NGOs and the importance of long-term solidarity in Colombia, specifically Uraba which was one of the regions I visited in August, and where the Church has suffered enormously but continues to carry out important prophetic work despite the risks: As Colombia Jails Army General, NGO’s Combating Land Grabs Should Take Note

On the insanity of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan (as a rule, blasphemy laws are nuts, even in countries in Europe where many are still shockingly on the books, but Pakistan has made their prosecution and implementation a special art form) and their impact on religious minorities, including Christians but also on non-Sunni Muslims and others: How to Commit Blasphemy in Pakistan

On the real impact of the drug war in Mexico (and other countries, including Colombia and Peru, though Mexico is the focus of this article), touching upon the actual real life effects of the North American and European recreational drug habit and political policies on actual real life people in those South American countries. For those wondering what this has to do with religious freedom – consider that in 2010 over 1000 Catholic priests in Mexico reported being under threat from organized crime involved in the drug trade; rates are probably similar for the Protestant churches though no comprehensive study has been possible, mostly because people are so afraid of the consequences of speaking out: Breaking Bad Doesn’t Show You the Real Drug War Drama

The increasing marginalization of women from the political transition and reform in Egypt. This is particularly on my heart as one year ago I was in Egypt running a training on human rights advocacy to a large group of young Christians, the majority of whom were young women, who love their country and were so hopeful for a future that included inclusion and the active participation of women and religious minorities: From Virginity Test to Power

I’m posting the translation of an article written by a friend in Cuba. It’s not exactly a guest-blog, it appeared in Spanish on her husband’s blog cubanoconfesante.com – but with their permission I wanted to share it.

Yoaxis is the wife of Pastor Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, a Baptist pastor in a small town in central Cuba. He and the denomination have come under intense pressure from the Cuban regime. It started when he refused to expel “undesirables” from his church. It grew worse when he began to speak out about the ways the government tried to intimidate him and members of his congregation. His church is under pressure to kick him out (so far they’ve resisted) as is the denominational leadership (so far, they are resisting too despite serious repercussions for the larger denomination).

Mario and his wife, Yoaxis, however, refuse to bow their heads and pretend that everything is fine and that the Church is free in Cuba. They regularly denounce violations of religious freedom – and in the article below, Yoaxis responds to an article that ran in the state sanctioned press challenging (not very well) information put out by my organization and in the process denigrating her and Mario’s denomination – which despite being referred to as “tiny and irrelevant” in the article is actually one of the largest and most thriving organizations in the country.

Please pray for Mario, Yoaxis, their children, their church and their entire denomination as they play the role of David to Castro’s Goliath. (Disclaimer: please blame me for any grammatical oddities or errors – it’s my translation)

Freedom in Cuba?

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By: Yoaxis Marcheco Suárez

I do not know what is happening to certain people or institutions in the world. I think they must be suffering from some kind of lethargy that prevents them from seeing the Cuban reality or it’s that they simply conform themselves to whatever the anti-democratic government of this country says and paints for them. Deeper Cuba is something else, far removed from the reports and the statistics that the government offers up to international opinion. The simple act of looking at a nation plunged into bankruptcy and the imbalance caused by more than fifty years under the same system, with authorities whose extreme self-sufficiency has led them to believe that they are immortal gods, all-powerful and irreplaceable, should be enough for the free world to understand that on this little Antillean island, democracy and freedom took off for the countryside one day and appear to have been unable to find their way back home.

I have also been unable to explain to myself why the Cuban people do not take up the reins and free themselves and everyone else once and for all from what has overwhelmed them for so long. It is very clear, at least to those with decent eyesight, that the country has succumbed; its inhabitants are fed up with daily life. Unfortunately the response to this unhappiness is the high rate of emigration, suicide, alcoholism, crime, the low rate of childbirth in an aging population, alienation and silence.

To speak of freedom in Cuba is almost painful. The recurring monosyllable is No. No freedom of expression; No freedom of the press; No freedom of political or party affiliation (in a single party system); No ideological freedom, No freedom of information, No freedom of assembly or meeting; and a very qualified religious freedom, where the church-state separation is only incumbent upon the church, because the state is constantly exercising its interfering control over the different denominations, associations, etc, manipulating the church leadership, constantly threatening, blackmailing, with an air of superiority. Truly, I do not know what they mean by the phrase ‘separation of church and state’, when the former is supervised in every way by the latter, every step it takes, every decision that it makes.

The questions posed by Benedict XVI, himself, during his recent visit to the country remain unanswered. When will they return, in their entirety, the institutions that the Revolution in its first years, confiscated from the churches? When will it be possible to create new educational institutions with a religious ethos so that the current and future generations of believers can be educated, not under the Marxist-Leninist doctrine but under the teaching of the Bible? When will the religious institutions be able to broadcast their own radio and television programs, or publish its newsletters, printing presses, editorials and bookstores? Isn’t denying these things to the churches a good indication of infringements upon their freedom?

On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that if we are going to talk about the restoration of rights to believers in Cuba, the same rights should be given to all, without distinction, including, as mentioned by Percy Francisco Alvarado Godoy in his article: “Another Fallacy of Radio Marti…” to the “tiny and irrelevant congregations that are part of the Western Convention of Baptists, and the Apostolic Movement,” the latter which remains illegal because of the filtering censor of the famous Registry of Associations of the Central Committee. The great fallacy is actually (and believe me it is much more than a “quagmire of lies”) to say that in Cuba, its government, as cited by the same previously mentioned author: “never tortured or persecuted religious pastors for their beliefs, regardless of the size of their denomination, their isolation or a lack of network in or outside Cuba.” I think that the term “never” is perhaps a little too broad.

It’s obvious that this writer to whom I refer is only following in the footsteps of his maximum guide and current historical leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, who had the nerve to state during the interview “Fidel and religion” that no church was ever shut down in Cuba. In the not so distant past, in the 1960s, the dictators, who were of course bitter enemies of religion, created the UMAP concentration camps, where hundreds of pastors and church leaders were sent. Many churches were literally closed, including the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Taguayabón, of which I am a member. Believers were barred from entry to the universities; many who decided to remain true to their faith lost their jobs. The church buildings began to empty in the era of communist ideology, with its atheistic and materialist character, which in Fidel Castro’s version took on the aspect of the exterminator of spirituality in a people who were naturally prone to belief.

The much-trumpeted Cuban Constitution of today, which is manipulated by the owners of everything on this island, says in Article 8, that it recognizes and respects freedom of conscience and religion. If they were being honest, they should have added a clause to the article: only if he who professes is a revolutionary, practices Fidelism, and has learned to agree with everything when given an order by the government bodies.” This clause is implicit even though the article goes on to say that the religious institutions are separate from the state. Article 55 expresses: that the state recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It would be repetitive to explain this huge lie, in a country where those who think differently in terms of ideology and politics are imprisoned, arbitrarily detained, threatened, repudiated – always under the same slanderous pretext that they are on the imperial payroll or are mercenaries. In the colossal egocentrism of the Castros and their followers, “the revolutionaries,” there is no room for other mindsets. They fear plurality, just as all tyrants fear those of true faith and firm conviction.

In any case, even without understanding what is going on with those who proclaim themselves to the world to be free, and with a Cuban people so deprived of their most basic rights, I will carry on here inside a smothered Cuba and in this “tiny and irrelevant Baptist Convention of Western Cuba,” which for me is full of beautiful traditions and a deep history of more than one hundred years, with its champions of faith, like the man who was very close to Martí, Alberto J. Díaz, a collaborator in the struggle for independence against the Spanish colonial power; Luis Manuel González Peña, who during the darkest period for believers in Cuba told a government official who predicted the end of churches in this country, that there would be churches yet for a good while, and even more.

I’ll believe in a Jesus who does not mingle with the ego-centric powers of this world but rather with those below, with the “immense minorities” and who most certainly was followed by many, only later to be abandoned by the great multitude, including his disciples, and who was also crucified for many and accepted by few.