CAMAGUEY, Cuba Pastor Omar Gude Pérez, whom supporters allege is a victim of religious persecution, is facing seven years in prison by request of a state prosecutor.
Authorities have charged Pérez with "illicit economic activity and falsification of documents." His trial was expected to begin before the end of May.
According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, those close to the pastor believe he is being targeted because of his religious activity and leadership of a rapidly growing Christian movement. The prosecutor's petition goes on to accuse the pastor of "counter-revolutionary conduct and attitudes."
Christian Solidarity, a humanitarian organization that specializes in religious freedoms, said that Pérez has already spent almost one year in prison without being given a trial. The leader of a non-denominational, non-political religious movement in Cuba known as the "Apostolic Reformation" was first detained May 22, 2008, when authorities originally attempted to charge him with "human trafficking." Those charges were thrown out in March by a local court that cited a lack of evidence. The case was then referred to Havana and in early April the family was notified of the new charges.
The new charges are reported to involve a name change on his birth certificate, which was changed after his mother remarried.
"The pastor's wife says the new charges are merely an attempt to disguise the fact that he is a victim of religious persecution," a spokesperson for CSW said. "She and others familiar with the case point to the fact that he and the family received threats and warnings to curtail their religious activities from government officials for months prior to his detention. A number of other leaders and members of their religious group have also received threats and been harassed by the authorities.
"Since Raul Castro took power in early 2008, there has been an increase in reported violations of religious liberty. Another pastor and denominational leader, the Rev. Roberto Rodriguez, of Placetas, Cuba has also been the subject of legal proceedings against him and members of his family."
The Rev. Stuart Windsor, national director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, called on Cuban authorities to release Pérez immediately, while also challenging the government to stand by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed last year. The document guarantees the right to religious freedom for all groups."
"The imprisonment of Pastor Gude Pérez is a clear case of religious persecution and is part of a larger crackdown on religious groups in Cuba," Windsor said.
Independent self-governing non-denominational churches, which operate outside of the traditional, officially recognized denominations, are often perceived as a threat by the government. The lack of association, CSW officials said, makes groups like the Apostolic Reformation particularly vulnerable to harassment. Church leaders have reported that their phones are tapped, leaders are watched and threatened, and many church members have been threatened with loss of employment if they do not leave these churches.
Prior to his imprisonment, Pérez and his wife, Kenia, were working with another couple to start a small Bible school. Since his arrest, his wife has been allowed to see Pérez only every 21st day.