In today’s world, where the pursuit of human rights often finds itself in the crosshairs of political strife and societal division, one fundamental right stands tall as a beacon of hope: religious freedom. It is a right that transcends borders, faiths, and ideologies, deserving not just protection but unwavering advocacy. 

Yet, as we champion this cause, it is essential to acknowledge the persistent violations of religious freedom, notably in Cuba. Religious leaders from all denominations face harassment and persecution, constantly under the watchful eye of the Office of Religious Affairs, an arm of the Communist Party that unilaterally decides what is permitted or not in terms of religious issues. 

Worship, a pillar of faith, is restricted to a mere three times on weekdays. Even during religious celebrations like Easter or Pentecost, the authorities hold the power to decide whether to extend the days for worship services. Expressing one’s religious identity through banners, posters, or signs on places of worship is forbidden. Authorization for worship in personally owned residences is only granted temporarily, perpetuating a climate of uncertainty.  To compound these challenges, religious services are barred in “houses of worship” located less than two kilometers apart in urban areas. Authorization requests for worship services demand detailed information, including the number of attendees and personal details of the responsible pastor or auxiliary. 

These violations underscore the pressing need for firm commitment to safeguarding religious freedom, and organizations like IRI have undertaken this task. 

The recent Oslo Freedom Forum of 2023 bore witness to this commitment as IRI joined forces with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) to convene an event of profound significance, titled “Freedom and Faith: Feats of Human Ingenuity in North Korea and Cuba.” This event was not merely a fleeting moment in time but a testament to the enduring struggle for religious freedom. 

At its core were two remarkable individuals, Pastor Seungeun Kim from Korea and Pastor Mario Lleonart from Cuba. Their impassioned narratives resonated deeply, providing a poignant glimpse into the arduous journeys of believers worldwide. Their presence served as a powerful reminder that the fight for religious freedom knows no boundaries and is a battle that transcends countries.  

Guiding this event with finesse was Kristina Arriaga, a passionate communicator who is the former Vice Chair, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Her role as moderator ensured that discussions remained action-oriented and purposeful. Her presence underscored the fact that the defense of religious freedom requires not just passion but also expertise. 

The enduring message from this event was the tireless dedication of individuals like Pastor Seungeun Kim and Pastor Mario Lleonart to the cause of religious freedom. Pastor Seungeun Kim’s forthcoming rescue mission to North Korea and Pastor Mario Lleonart’s continuous support for persecuted individuals in Cuba epitomize the indomitable spirit that characterizes defenders of religious freedom worldwide. 

Pastor Seungeun Kim’s and Pastor Mario Lleonart’s steadfast dedication to the cause of religious freedom takes diverse but equally impactful forms. Pastor Kim diligently rescues people in labor camps and children in street-roaming markets, simultaneously revealing crucial North Korean police documents and military manuals, shedding light on the “real” North Korea, and advocating for the human dignity of thousands. In a parallel vein, Pastor Lleonart keeps the flame of hope alive for countless Cubans enduring persecution, especially those imprisoned for their beliefs. He stealthily communicates messages of encouragement to prisoners, remaining a symbol of resilience even in exile, while through Instituto Patmos, he fights for the human dignity of fellow Cuban pastors and congregations is consistently respected, leaving an enduring mark on the ongoing struggle for religious freedom. 

The struggle for religious freedom is not bound by a specific moment; it is an ongoing odyssey. The pursuit of religious freedom is a timeless endeavor, one that demands our determined support, today and for generations to come. Let us stand together, resolute in our commitment to safeguarding this vital human right. 

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