While President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president in 88 years to personally visit Cuba on Sunday (March 20), a prayer vigil for Cuban Christians was hosted in front of the White House by Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition and lead pastor of Church on the Hill. Activists also used the vigil as a demonstration for religious freedom.
Obama's intent is to open a new chapter in U.S. engagement with the island's Communist government after decades of animosity between the former Cold War foes, reports Reuters.
More than 100 churches in Cuba have been demolished and 2,000-plus churches closed in recent persecutions against Cuban Christians, said Mahoney. "We stand in solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters, and call upon the President to publicly speak out against this crushing of religious freedom and human rights. We cannot be silent."
Christians and activists in Washington, D.C., today said they hope Obama will sound off publicly "against the Castro government's policy of religious persecution against Christians and free speech of political dissidents," reports Christian Newswire.
Mahoney has long fought for religious freedom and human rights in Cuba. While serving as a pastor in south Florida, he was a vocal opponent of the Castro regime and led demonstrations against the return of Elian Gonzalez.
"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," stated Mahoney.
"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."
Mahoney said his group is not interested in Obama having private meetings with Cuban leaders on these matters. "He must address them publicly. The Obama Administration also cannot move forward to normalize relations with Cuba while these gross violations of human rights and religious freedoms are still in place."
"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," said Mahoney in a Sunday statement.
Cassadra Collins, communications director for Hillside Mission Organization in Richmond, Va., stated their nonprofit's supporters joined Mahoney's group to pray for Christians around Cuba. "Because we love God, we care about believers around the world and we advocate on their behalf when they experience unjust treatment. 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. We urge Christian communities around America to join us in prayer for Cuban Christians, and to advocate for religious freedom in Cuba."
The president's three-day trip culminates a diplomatic opening announced by Obama and Castro in December 2014, ending a Cold War-era estrangement that began when the Cuban revolution ousted a pro-American government in 1959.