The gospel officially arrived in Cuba in 1511, when Spanish conquistador Velázquez established the Catholic Church on the Caribbean island. But since then, the gospel message has been trampled as genocide, plantation slavery, war, and hardship have afflicted Cuba’s people.

Since 1960, dictator Fidel Castro, 88, and now his brother-successor Raul, 83, have held Cuba in their brutal grasp. Under Castro, 99 percent of Cubans read and write by age 15, and starvation is rare. These are great social advances. But freedom to worship God as one wishes has been subject to extreme state control. Cuba is a police state.

In 2012, the United States granted political asylum to Carlos Lamelas, a Pentecostal pastor who ran afoul of the Castro regime. Speaking with CT recently, Lamelas provided a glimpse of what life is like for many pastors: constant surveillance. State-sponsored temptations from black marketeers and offers of illicit sex. Porn slipped inside the pulpit Bible. Control over Bible publication. Severe beatings and assaults. Unable to lure Lamelas, police falsely charged him with human trafficking: “They pulled me out of the house, practically kidnapping me one morning.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide says violations of religious freedom have risen each year since 2011. But renewed prospects for positive change hang in the balance, even while the US embargo remains in effect. President Obama’s call for normalizing relations, too long frozen in cold war groupthink policies, offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Cuban and American churches to strengthen their ties. The gospel, not politics, is our shared Christian agenda. Under the new US policy, “religious activity” ...

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