LAKELAND, Fla. (ABP) — Two Cuban Baptist leaders held two weeks while authorities investigated what they regarded suspicious economic activity have reportedly been released from jail.
Rubén Ortiz-Columbié, 68, and Francisco "Pancho" Garcia-Ruiz, 46, were arrested Oct. 3 by agents of Cuba's National Revolutionary Police as they entered the province of Guantanamo to deliver financial aid to churches. They were detained in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba while authorities investigated the source and destination of currency worth $4,000 they were carrying at the time of their arrest.
Ray Johnson, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida, said he received a call Oct. 17 from the son of one of the captives, Ruben Ortiz, pastor of First Hispanic Baptist Church in Deltona, Fla., saying they were released without formal charge. Ortiz could not be reached for comment.
The Florida CBF entered into a partnership with the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention in 2008. Ortiz-Columbié, former general office manager of the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention and long-time teacher at the Baptist Seminary of Eastern Cuba, now volunteers as the convention's coordinator for special projects. Garcia directs the convention's teen department.
The Florida CBF has so far collected and transferred $7,000 to fund ministry projects in Cuba. First Hispanic Baptist Church in Deltona has been sending money to the island on a regular basis since 2001.
Sources in Cuba said it is unlikely the men were targeted for religious activity but probably aroused suspicion by carrying around such a large amount of cash. The U.S. State Department estimates Cuba's per capita income at $4,200 a year with an average monthly salary of $17.
Ned Walsh, a former Baptist minister and current executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Johnston County in Smithfield, N.C., recently returned from a trip to Cuba. He said government officials are particularly wary of money coming from Florida.
Opposition there to Cuban leader Fidel Castro is strong, especially among Miami's large population of Cuban exiles. Also, Walsh said, some evangelical groups in the United States are openly hostile to Castro and thereby viewed in Cuba as capable of supporting activities the government would deem subversive.
Walsh compared it to the suspicion that would likely greet Muslim clergy bringing a large sum of money to a mosque in the U.S. from Iraq.
Cuban Baptists have always been politically diverse but those differences have intensified of late as shortages and lack of opportunity have weakened support for the revolution and citizens increasingly say they would like greater freedoms.
One Baptist pastor in Cuba said recently he was forced out of a Baptist convention for condemning rapprochement of Baptist hierarchy with Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother as Cuba's president in 2008.
Other Baptists believe they fare better by getting along with the government. Walsh said a pastor with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba pointed him toward a landscape hit by a hurricane. Massive oak trees that once stood there were gone, but the palm trees remained. The reason, the pastor told Walsh, is the palm trees were able to bend.
–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.