A pastor in Cuba has stood firm against the Cuban government, refusing to suspend Masses during the nation's nine-day period of mourning for Cuban despot Fidel Castro, who died November 25.

For fifty-nine years, Castro ruled his island nation with an iron fist. After the 1959 revolution, Cuba officially embraced atheism—and practicing Catholics and others of faith were regarded with suspicion. Viewing the Catholic Church as a rival for the hearts of the people, Castro canceled the celebration of the Christmas holiday and deported the archbishop and 150 Spanish priests. Catholic schools were shuttered, and all children were required to attend state-sponsored schools where they would be indoctrinated into Marx-Leninist ideology. Catholics were excluded from the Communist party, since the tenets of the faith were in opposition to the party's Marxist ideals; and so Catholics were denied the political benefits of party membership.

In all, more than 140,000 people have been executed by the brutal Castro regime, often by firing squad. Thousands more have been imprisoned or sent to forced labor camps. Basic human rights were suspended.

The totalitarian regime prompted a mass exodus of more than 300,000 Cubans, many of whom sought refuge in the United States.

There was a limited relaxation of policies in 1992, when Catholics were finally permitted to join the Communist party; but private schools have never reopened. Despite the government's boasts about free health care and education, most citizens subsist on an average income of only $25 per month.

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Now the dictator is gone. Fidel Castro—who had turned the reigns of government over to his younger brother Raul in 1995—died last week at the age of ninety. But still, freedom eludes the Cuban citizenry.

As news of Fidel's passing spread among Cuban-American immigrants, people in Miami took to the streets to dance and cheer, nurturing the hope of greater freedom in their country of origin; but their relatives back home in Cuba had to be much more circumspect in their celebrations. Cuba's current government under the rule of Fidel's brother, President Raul Castro, has imposed a mandatory nine-day period of mourning. State security officials have forced the closure of nightclubs, businesses and schools, and have apparently forced citizens to participate in parades and rallies honoring the fallen leader. 

And in a policy which will have prayerful Christians scratching their heads, the government has attempted to force churches to suspend their services until after the period of mourning, and to instead join the celebratory parades in Castro's honor.

Mario Félix Lleonhart, a Baptist minister who has experienced firsthand government persecution in Cuba, reports that several pastors have refused to abide by the government's directive. He quotes one unnamed priest who refused to close his church's doors:

Things remain complicated here, my friend. Today, I received news that many churches have suspended adoration and prayer services and that others are singing without accompaniment out of “respect for national mourning.” Just as Daniel prayed three times a day with the window open in the manner to which he was accustomed, so we celebrate our Sundays as usual, though we now only use a piano and play it softly so as not to seem disrespectful of those who “feel the loss.”

The priest went on to report that the president of the local Ministry of Justice and one of her officials had come to the church between Sunday school and Mass. They had brought with them an official order to cancel Mass that day and to suspend all other services through December 9, during the mandatory mourning period. “You know what I told her?” said the priest.

“You can go fetch the police or anyone else you want but I am not going to suspend any Masses and we are not going to stop singing. We sing and hold adorations even when one of our own dies. That does not show a lack of respect. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is God’s. Kill me, jail me, but we are not going to suspend Holy Mass.”

According to Lleonart, the Ministry of Justice officials eventually softened their tone, asking the priest, “Well, at least tone it down.” The priest reported the conversation to the 200 people gathered in his church, telling them that if they wanted to leave Mass, they could go home. No one left; the Mass went on as planned, and the priest described it as “a glorious service, like in the early church.”