United States and Cuba diplomacy sparks hope & wariness

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President Obama’s opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba may fuel an already-vibrant evangelistic movement there, or it may fuel a repressive regime, according to some leaders and pastors voicing divergent opinions over the White House action.

“Our prayer is that the Cuban church planting movement continue to expand. The Cuban people are very receptive to the Gospel,” Kurt Urbanek, IMB strategist for Cuba, said in a statement to BP.

“We praise the Lord Jesus Christ for the spiritual awakening in Cuba which has seen over 500,000 Cubans come to saving faith in churches during the past 13 years,” Urbanek noted. “Our focus as missionaries is evangelism, discipleship, church planting and leadership development. We look to political developments only as they impact the growth of the Kingdom of God.”

Church congregations in Cuba included more than 977 traditional churches and more than 6,454 house churches in 2013, according to International Mission Board statistics, an increase from only 210 traditional churches and an unknown number of house churches in the country’s early days of communism in 1960.

President Obama said from the White House Dec. 17 the United States will end “an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.”

The U.S. intends “to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas,” Obama said, pledging to reverse 50 years of U.S. policies that have isolated the country that is only 90 miles from Florida.

“Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades. We have done so primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island, preventing the most basic travel and commerce that Americans can enjoy anyplace else,” the president said. “And though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people.”

Obama said the U.S. will re-establish an embassy in Havana; cooperatively work with Cuba to advance mutual interests on many issues including migration; take steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba; and review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Terry Lassiter, a strategy leader for the International Mission Board’s American peoples affinity group, joined Urbanek in expressing optimism after Obama’s announcement.

“We are very hopeful and happy to hear of this new era of relations between Cuba and the USA,” said Lassiter. “We have much to learn from each other to see the advance of the Gospel and this new relationship makes this more possible.”

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said, “I disagree with President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. I tend to think engagement and trade is better than disengagement, but Cuba is a special case, a terrorist-sponsoring, human rights-violating dictatorship located just miles away from our border. I don’t trust the Castro regime to keep the promises they are making.”

Moore added, “I can only hope now that God will use the open markets in Cuba toward a more open door to the Gospel. Regardless of where we stand on the politics of this, we should all pray for a free Cuba, including complete freedom of religion, to come about in 2015.”

Óscar J. Fernández, who holds political asylum from Cuba, expressed pessimism that the changes will help Cubans. Fernández directs Ministerio Hispano, a ministry of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn.

“This is a real tragedy for the people in Cuba, and for the families of the thousands of martyrs and political prisoners in the island,” Fernandez, a columnist for BP en Español, said. “This change is not going to help the Cuban people [under] a communist government in power for more than 50 years. I will applaud if Cuba makes any concessions, but they are not [likely to do so].”

David R. Lema Jr., meanwhile, then a 7-year-old son of a Cuban pastor who left Cuba with his family for Spain, said he believes “any normalization of political ties between Cuba and the U.S., regardless of political implications or results, should prove beneficial for Christian work.”

“Travel for Americans going to Cuba would flow smoother and with less inconvenience — anyone that has gone to Cuba knows what I am talking about here,” said Lema, director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for the Americas in Miami. “Churches and individuals will have more freedom to help the churches directly without having to worry about U.S. embargo violations.”

Other Cuban Christians ministering in the U.S. who commented on Obama’s move expressed a mix of guarded optimism and caution.

“We have to wait and see what happens,” Alberto Ocaña, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Northside in the Miami suburb of Hialeah, told the Florida Witness. “If there is no genuine change [by the Cuban regime], it will be like a person that claims to be a Christian but there has been no real change in his heart; it is purely cosmetic.”

— by Diana Chandler | BP

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