Cuban church leader on trial over 'offensive behaviour'

A prominent church leader will be put on trial on Monday in what members of his organisation say is a government campaign to silence and discredit him.

Rev Robert Rodriguez, pastor of the Los Pinos Nuevos de Sagua la Grande Church and the National President of the Interdenominational Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors and Ministers in Cuba, and his son, pastor Eric Gabriel Rodriguez del Toro, have been accused of “offensive behaviour” by a neighbour, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

The neighbour has allegedly carried out a campaign of harassment, with the apparent support of local government officials, against the families for a number of years. Prosecutors are requesting that Pastor Rodriguez be given a one-year prison sentence.

Pastor Rodriguez, who lives in Placetas in north-central Cuba, was tried on 8 December and was sentenced to three-months to one-year probation. Any problems with the authorities will result in him being sent to prison, says CSW.

As in similar cases in Cuba, however, church leaders in the country say that the authorities are using the charges by the neighbour as a pretext for pressuring and possibly imprisoning the two pastors. They believe that the real reason behind this trial lies in the withdrawal of the Interdenominational Fellowship from the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC) in September of this year, under the leadership of Rev Rodriguez.

At the time, the fellowship published a letter outlining their reasons for withdrawing from the CCC in which they cited consistent and illegal interference in its internal affairs by the CCC leadership over the past year.

CSW says religious freedom in Cuba has worsened significantly over the past year. Another church leader, Pastor Omar Gude Perez has been imprisoned since May without being brought to trial. According to church leaders in Cuba, these situations illustrate a pattern of official intolerance towards religious leaders who resist government interference in church organisations.

In October, government authorities stripped Rev Rodriguez of his position as President of the Interndenominational Fellowship in the government Registry of Associations, a move which was condemned as unconstitutional by its members as it was done without their involvement or approval. Since then, they say, the families have been subjected to a campaign of accusations and harassment, culminating in the trial.

CSW said Rev Rodriguez’s health has suffered as a result of the situation. He has had problems with his kidneys and is believed to have lost over thirty pounds over the past few months. A local official, Romulo Palacios, reportedly physically mistreated him when he and his son presented themselves at the local police station in Placetas Municipality.

Stuart Windsor, National Director of CSW said, “We are deeply concerned for the well-being of Reverend Rodriguez and call on the Cuban authorities to drop the charges against him and his son.

"That the family was notified the day after Christmas and only three days before the scheduled trial indicates that the authorities are hoping that this will go unnoticed outside of the country.

"The international community must make it clear to the Cuban government that this is unacceptable and that religious freedom must be respected.”