Cuban Baptist leaders in custody; charges unclear

Rubén Ortiz-Columbié is pictured here working on a disaster-relief response last year in Cuba.
DELTONA, Fla. (ABP) -- Two Cuban Baptist leaders arrested Oct. 3 in the city of Santiago de Cuba remain in jail, reportedly without formal charge and with few details of why they are being held.

DELTONA, Fla. (ABP) -- Two Cuban Baptist leaders arrested Oct. 3 in the city of Santiago de Cuba remain in jail, reportedly without formal charge and with few details of why they are being held.

Rubén Ortiz-Columbié, coordinator for special projects of the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention, and Francisco "Pancho" Garcia, director of the convention's teen department, were reportedly carrying out church work when nabbed by authorities.

Ortiz' son, also named Ruben, is a pastor in Florida. He said the two men were on their way to distribute money donated for Baptist work. He said his church, Primera Iglesia Bautista in Deltona, Fla., regularly sends funds to the convention for mission projects in Cuba.

Rubén Ortiz-Columbié is pictured here working on disaster-relief efforts with the Eastern Baptist Convention for Hurricane Paloma last year in Santa Cruz del Sur, Cuba.

Observers in the United States familiar with the situation said they don't know why police targeted Ortiz and Garcia. Ortiz is a well known Baptist leader in Cuba and worldwide. He is former general office manager of the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention and has taught stewardship at the Baptist Seminary of Eastern Cuba for 20 years. Since retiring from the convention he has continued to visit churches to determine project needs and help them to secure necessary funds and labor to get the jobs done in a volunteer capacity.

In 2008 the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida entered into a partnership with the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention to support the work of Ortiz and Garcia. As of mid-September, the Florida CBF had received and transferred a total of $7,000 to help restore and repair structures used for religious services, camps and education.

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.

In 1898 the home mission boards of the American and Southern Baptist denominations met in Washington and agreed to divide Cuba between east and west for the purposes of missionary work.

In addition to the smaller Western Cuba Baptist Convention, historically tied to the Southern Baptist Convention, there is also a Free Will Baptist convention. And the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, which broke off from the western convention in 1989 over theological and administrative differences, has a partnership with the Alliance of Baptists.

In recent years the four groups have worked more closely together than in the past. All are members of the Baptist World Alliance, the global umbrella group for Baptists. In 2000 the BWA General Council met in Havana -- the first-ever international Baptist gathering held in the communist nation. During that meeting a Baptist delegation met with Cuban President Fidel Castro. The meeting opened doors for projects including Bible distribution and open-air services in 1999, allowed for the first time in four decades.

Though difficult, Baptist work in Cuba has exploded in recent years. In 2004, Denton Lotz, who has since retired as BWA general secretary, reported that more than 2,500 house churches had been started in the previous eight years. That more than doubled the number of churches, and the number of worshipers had grown from 80,000 to 200,000.

The eastern convention is involved in an evangelistic push with a goal of reaching 500,000 people by 2010. The western convention aims to plant 1,000 new house churches during the same period.

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.

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