A pastor of a house church in Cuba has been sentenced to a year of house arrest for loud worship services.

Pastor Juan Carlos Nuñez was sentenced by a civil court in the city of Las Tunas, Cuba on 22 November, Morning Star News reports. Pastor Nuñez leads the house church Apostolic House of the King of Glory, which is home to 550 worshippers.

Nuñez was sentenced under Cuba’s environmental protection laws with “disturbing the peace”, but a source close to the pastor said the sentence was overly hasty, giving Nuñez no chance to make a defence. “The attorney did not have time to prepare because it was a summary [immediate] judgment, without any chance to be able to defend him,” the source said. “There was no advance warning.”

The charge against Nuñez came from complaints by Nuñez’s neighbours that his church’s sound system was too loud. Nuñez says that he obliged his neighbours and replaced the church speakers with smaller, 150 watt units. His congregation meets in the courtyard of an apartment complex in Las Tunas, for which Nuñez says the minimal amplification barely sufficed.

“We complied with the neighbors’ wishes, but the case still went to court,” he said.

The Cuban authorities deployed a force of high-ranking ‘black beret’ army soldiers at the courthouse on the day of Nuñez’s trial. Local observers said that such heavy force was excessive given that the court only tries civil cases and misdemeanors, not criminals charged with felonies.

Nuñez said: “This was a form of intimidation, a show of power…You see, they feared there might be protests, because they themselves know that what they are doing is unjust.”

The pastor hopes to appeal what he saw as an overly harsh sentence. “Our mission is to preach the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we are suffering for that cause,” he said. “We were treated as criminals and enemies of the government. We are children of God unjustly accused and convicted.”

Nuñez added that “We could avoid this whole problem entirely if they would let us have our own meeting place,” saying that the government has refused to grant his church a building permit. The US State Department’s 2015 International Religious Freedom Report states that restrictions by Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) means that many churches are forced to use their private homes. The report suggests that the number of house churches could be anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000.

Many see the government’s restrictions as part of a crackdown on religious freedom. Between January and July 2016, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) recorded 1,606 violations of religious freedom. These included the demolition and confiscation of church buildings, the destruction of church property and arbitrary detention.

CSW has accused the government of targeting church properties “to tighten its control over the activities and membership of religious groups and thus eliminate the potential for any social unrest.” The US State department’s 2016 report on religious freedom stated that the Cuban government “monitored religious groups” and “continued to control most aspects of religious life”.

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