By Stefan J. Bos Worthy News Chief International Correspondent
HAVANA, CUBA (Worthy News)-- Two Baptist leaders who were detained in eastern Cuba while distributing humanitarian aid from American Christians were free Tuesday, October 27, after two weeks imprisonment Christians said.
Pastors Ruben Ortiz Columbie, 68, and Francisco Garcia Ruiz, 46, were apparently arrested in early October in Cuba's Guantanamo Province where they distributed aid from Baptist churches located in the U.S. State of Florida.
Last week the charges of "illicit financial activity" were suddenly dropped and they were released, according to Cuban church leaders. There had been international pressure on authorities to release the two men and media, including Worthy News and its partner agency BosNewsLife, had been covering the story.
The two pastors were held in a Santiago prison and prevented from meeting church leaders during their imprisonment, said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an advocacy group that closely monitored the case. "Immediate family members were only allowed one twenty minute visit," CSW said.
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY "DETERIORATION"
Rights activist say the case is part of a wider "deterioration in religious liberty" on the island, with some Christian pastors and other leaders, becoming regular targets of "government repression."
"In July Pastor Omar Gude Perez, a national leader of the Apostolic Ministry Movement, was sentenced to six years in prison for 'falsification of documents and illicit economic activities’, "CSW said.
Additionally, Pastor Mario Alvarez, the Havana based leader of a church affiliated with Apostolic Movement, was informed by government officials that he is to be evicted from his home, Christians explained.
Alexi Perez, a leader in Pastor Alvarez’s church, has been in prison for three months, as part the ongoing crackdown on especially evangelical Christian activities, according to Cuban Christians and rights groups.
"Over 30 other pastors across the country have also reported being arrested and temporarily detained during 2009, " CSW said.
Elsewhere, Reverend Roberto Rodriguez, the former national director of the Interdenominational Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors and Ministers, has been threatened with imprisonment, “and subjected to a series of legal proceedings over the past twelve months, along with members of his family,” CSW added.
CUBAN GOVERNMENT PRESSURED
"We are overjoyed to learn that [two] pastors have been freed and are now back with their families," said CSW's National Director Stuart Windsor. “[But] We encourage the Cuban Government to also release Pastor Gude Perez and to cease the harassment of Reverend Rodriguez, ensuring that religious freedom is respected for people of all faiths in every part of the country," Windsor added. .
Christian groups have urged the European Union to pressure the Cuban government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which it signed in 2008 and to improve religious freedom on the Communist-run island.
While Communism is based on an atheist ideology, Western diplomats had expressed hopes that reforms would mean more freedom for Cubans. However rights activist say the situation has worsened for Christians since Raul Castro came to power in early 2008.
In addition, an August report of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights estimated that Cuba had at least 208 political prisoners, including now 53 of the 75 jailed in 2003.
Last week Tuesday, October 20, Cuban dissident Nelson Aguiar was unexpectedly released after being held for six years, often in what he described as “Stone Age” conditions, including an isolation cell that had virtually no ventilation.
DISSIDENT IS "STUNNED"
Aguiar, 64, told reporters he was "stunned" that he was out of jail because he still had years to go on a 13-year sentence handed out in a 2003 government crackdown on dissidents.
"They never said they were going to free me. When they told me to collect my things, I thought I was moving to another prison," he told Reuters news agency in an interview at the Havana apartment he now shares again with wife Dolia Leal Francisco.
He urged the Cuban authorities to release all other prisoners of conscious in the country. Aguiar thanked the Spanish government for helping to obtain his freedom, which followed a visit to communist-led Cuba by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.