Evangelicals Holed Up in Cuban Church Say it's Just a Retreat

Havana, Cuba - More than 60 evangelicals have holed themselves up in a Havana church for over three weeks – and they deny they are dissident agitators or doomsday watchers.

They are just holding a religious retreat, they say.

Cuba's government said that none of the evangelicals are there against their will and that police surrounded the church to prevent any incidents after family members expressed worries about loved ones on the inside, including four pregnant women and 19 minors.

William Herrera, the son and spokesman of pastor Braulio Herrera, told The Associated Press by phone from inside the temple that the group has been conducting a regular spiritual retreat since Aug. 21 that aims to "liberate Cuba from sins."

"God told us to pray morning, noon and night. ... We want a new Cuba free of sin," he said. "But this should not be misinterpreted — we do not have anything to do with politics."

A medical team entered to verify that the worshippers were in good health and warned the pregnant women a prolonged stay would be dangerous; authorities also expressed concern that the children were missing the beginning of the school year.

A government note published Tuesday in state media said officials were trying to resolve the situation, and that authorities had no involvement in its root cause. It said church officials dismissed Braulio Herrera from his post more than a year ago for internal reasons it did not explain.

William Herrera dismissed media accounts that the church was anticipating the end of the world, predicting a catastrophic tsunami or pressing for political change on the communist-run island.

"Those people have bad intentions and are trying to ruin this moment," he said.

Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, many clergy were expelled and religious schools closed under an officially atheist state. But church-state tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism from the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.