HAVANA, CUBA (Worthy News)– Baptist Pastor Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso and his wife, Yoaxis, were part of the 23 Christians detained by Cuban police in Santa Clara, said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a major religious rights group.
They were picked up by police Sunday morning, June 26, and released five hours later, after the service had ended, CSW told Worthy News. The worship service at the Santa Clara Methodist Church was held in support of Pastor Toranzo, who was reportedly removed from his position by the Methodist Bishop Ricardo Pereira Dias, because of his refusal to deny pastoral support to human rights activists and members of the political opposition.
Pastor Toranzo is the second high-profile pastor in Santa Clara to step down or be removed this year because of government pressure in the Communist-run island, according to church observers.
Baptist Pastor Homero Carbonell issued a statement at the start of 2011 saying that he and his church had come under "severe government pressure" because of his refusal to expel families of political prisoners from the church, CSW said.
Pastors Carbonell and Toranzo were reportedly also involved in a cross-denominational citywide march on Easter Sunday in 2010 which drew thousands and angered the authorities. "We strongly condemn the official pressure on church leaders in Cuba to deny pastoral support to certain members of their congregations because of their political affiliations," added CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston.
"We call on the Cuban government to cease their interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations and in particular to uphold the right of religious leaders to minister to all regardless of their political beliefs," he said.
The Santa Clara Methodist Church has publicly urged the bishop to reverse his decision and church leaders of all denominations in Santa Clara have reportedly appealed to the Methodist hierarchy in support of Pastor Toranzo. There is general agreement among church leaders in Santa Clara that the Bishop’s decision was made because of intense government pressure, CSW said.
The group claimed that it has received reports from sources in Cuba confirming similar pressure on leaders in other denominations. "There have also been reports that the authorities are making increased use of short-term detentions as opposed to long spells in prison, a tactic which CSW believes is being deployed to deflect international attention from the ongoing harassment of pastors."
Cuban officials have not yet commented on the latest developments. This year Cuba released the last of 75 dissidents, including Christians, who were detained in the 2003 crackdown.
The move following a ground-breaking deal brokered by the Roman Catholic Church in which Cuba's President Raul Castro agreed to free the remaining 52 inmates.
The Cuban government denies however that it as ever hold political prisoners and considers dissidents as "mercenaries financed by the U.S."to destabilize the government.
Read more about the Christian Persecution in Cuba.