Cuban authorities say two Baptist leaders held in jail for 11 days in a city on the eastern end of the island are suspected of illegal economic activities.
Associated Baptist Press first reported Oct. 13 that Ruben Ortiz-Columbie, coordinator for special projects of the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention, and Francisco “Pancho” Garcia, director of the convention’s teen department, had been arrested Oct. 3 and held without formal charge since then. They were being held in the city of Santiago de Cuba.
The following day El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister paper of The Miami Herald, reported that Ortiz, 68, and Ruiz, 46, were arrested by agents of Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police as they entered the province of Guantanamo to deliver financial aid to churches.
A prosecutor’s report obtained by the Newspaper said authorities seized the equivalent of about $4,000 from the men at the time of arrest. It said the men were trying to aid a group of small agricultural producers in the region – without authorization from the appropriate government body – through an effort the document called the “Fishermen’s Project,” or “Proyecto de Pescadores.”
Ortiz’s son, Ruben Ortiz, pastor of First Hispanic Baptist Church in Deltona, Fla., told El Nuevo Herald his church has been sending money to Cuba to help buy food and support repairs of church buildings, many of which were damaged by three hurricanes last year.
Cuban authorities said the men are being detained as a precautionary measure while they complete the case file.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida is licensed to send funds to the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention and has transferred $7,000 since October 2008. The younger Ortiz told the Newspaper that he sent paperwork documenting the transfer to Cuba Oct. 12.
With 320 churches, the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention is the largest of four Baptist groups in Cuba. It has a long-standing fraternal relationship with American Baptist Churches USA.
Jose Norat-Rodriguez, area director of Iberoamerica and the Caribbean for ABCUSA International Ministries, said Ortiz and Garcia were allowed to see their wives Oct. 9, but the women were not told why their husbands were being detained. He compared the two Baptists to Paul and Silas, two missionaries delivered from prison though the power of prayer in the Book of Acts, and asked fellow Baptists to pray both for their release and for their families.
The Spanish conquistadors brought Catholicism to Cuba, imposing their culture and beliefs, and it was the only official religion in Cuba and other Spanish colonies for 400 years. The first permanent Protestants in Cuba were repatriated refugees converted to Protestant faiths during exile in the United States.
After the Spanish-American War, however, missionaries poured into Cuba. With so many entering at the same time, denominations sat down together to give order to their missionary ventures.
Some, like Baptists, zeroed in on geographical areas.
Christians in Cuba endured hardships after Castro took power in 1959, but he relaxed restrictions in the 1990s, saying it was a mistake to make atheism the official religion of the Cuban Revolution. In 1994 he opened membership in the Communist Party to Christians. Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.