Cuba: Standoff at Havana church as dangerous as Waco

CBS News/September 12, 2011

A top Cuban church official told CBS News the situation created by a Pentecostal pastor who has barricaded himself along with an unspecified number of followers in his former Havana church is "as dangerous as Waco," the 1993 FBI siege and assault on the "Branch Davidian" sect in Texas.

The Cuban government on Sunday issued a statement on what it called "the unusual situation" in the Pentecostal Church in Centro Habana. The statement said more than 60 people, including 19 children and four pregnant women, were voluntarily locked in the building on a "spiritual retreat."

Authorities were able to convince those inside to allow doctors in to check on the pregnant women, the statement said, but expressed concern over their condition should they remain in the church for a prolonged period. The statement also expressed concern for the children who are missing classes.

The statement was the second news item on state-run television's evening newscast Sunday. It said the Pentecostal Church that had relieved the church's pastor, Braulio Herrera Tito, of his duties.

The Rev. Marcial Hernandez, President of Cuba's Council of Churches and himself a pastor of an Evangelical Pentecostal Church, says he doesn't know the exact number of people inside with Pastor Braulio, but other sources put the number at 62.

The building, which houses the Assembly of God Pentecostal Evangelical Church of Cuba, has been surrounded by a tight cordon of police forces since Friday evening. All traffic and including bus routes have been diverted and only those people who can show proof that they live in that area are allowed through police lines.

Residents of the heavily populated and rundown neighborhood of Centro Habana where the church stands say the pastor told his followers the end of the world is coming and only by locking themselves into the church with him could they be saved.

The leader of another cult, who did not want to be identified, said that he and his congregation had been allowed to share the space of this church for their activities until two weeks ago when the pastor threw them out. Neighbors reported that large quantities of food and water were taken into the church before the doors were locked from the inside.

Hernandez says Braulio "regrettably" wandered from the canons set by his church and for the past year disobeyed orders from the National Assembly of Pentecostal Churches to return to doctrine leading to his dismissal.

Braulio has refused to leave the building, which belongs to the Pentecostal Church from which he was expelled. The National Assembly of Pentecostal Churches took the case to the Cuban courts which ruled in their favor.

Hernandez took Braulio to task for "not wanting to respect either the laws of his Church or of Cuba." He suggested the man was arbitrarily acting on impulse and because the Pentecostal churches are organized by congregations, Braulio has his followers who he convinced to lock themselves in with him.

The Council of Churches, Hernandez says, has not had any contact with Braulio, respecting the jurisdiction of the National Assembly of Pentecostal Churches to handle the situation. However, he said the Council would step in if that body asked for help, which it hasn't yet done. He voiced the opinion that Braulio needed psychiatric help.

All denominations of churches in Cuba have swelled since the economic crisis of the 1990s. The number of evangelicals in Cuba has grown from roughly 70,000 to more than 800,000 today, out of a population of 11 million, according to church sources.

Analysts say that modern evangelical Christianity with its boisterous music and passionate sermons is more appealing to Cubans, particularly poorer ones, than the more conservative practices of the Catholic Church and traditional Protestant denominations. Santeria and other Afro-Cuban religions also retain a strong hold over the population.

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