Monday, December 28, 2009

Cuban authorities send Portland church group back to Mexico

Cuban authorities send Portland church group back to Mexico
By Rick Bella, The Oregonian
December 27, 2009, 9:31AM

A humanitarian aid group from the First Unitarian Church of Portland was
allowed to leave the Havana airport today, after being detained by Cuban

Nine members of the group were held in the airport overnight for
unexplained reasons while five others were sent back Saturday to Cancun,
Mexico, where their flight to Cuba originated.

The Rev. Kate Lore, the church's social justice minister, said all
members of the group are safe and sound.

"I am so happy to hear they are doing well," Lore said. "I am breathing
a big sigh of relief."

After leaving Portland late Friday night, the nine people detained by
authorities slept on the floor at the Havana airport.

With few exceptions, U.S. citizens are banned from visiting Cuba.
However, the group, Cuba AyUUda, holds a special religious activities
license that allows legal travel to Cuba for those affiliated with First
Unitarian Church.

Carol Rossio, a church member, said members on the trip said Cuban
authorities said their religious activities license did not match their
tourist visas.

"They said that never bothered the Cuban authorities before," Rossio
said. "They didn't understand why that was a problem now."

Rossio said e-mails from detainees indicated that Cuban authorities
appeared to be expecting them and intercepted them as soon as they
landed. Some of those detained were in their late 70s, and found it
uncomfortable to sleep on the airport's cold concrete floor. She said
some Cubans not affiliated with the government offered help and tried to
make detainees comfortable.

"I'm glad they're safe and sound now," Rossio said.

Rossio went on the church's first trip to Cuba in 2003, with the choir.
Since then, a group has gone at least twice a year for projects such as
painting buildings, helping people in nursing homes and transporting
medical supplies and clothing.

She said the trips began after church choir director Mark Slegers met a
Cuban choir director who invited the choir to sing in Cuba.

The purpose of Cuba AyUUda's trips, the church Website says, is to share
Unitarian Universalism, foster citizen diplomacy, create and maintain
friendships, bring much-needed supplies to Cubans and maintain awareness
among Americans of the struggles of the Cuban people face.

Lore said the 14-member group was bringing medical supplies and planned
to paint a health clinic.

-- Rick Bella

Cuban authorities send Portland church group back to Mexico | Oregon
Local News - (27 December 2009)

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