By BosNewsLife Americas Service
HAVANA/WASHINGTON (BosNewsLife)-- A pastor who was jailed for leading independent churches in Cuba has arrived with his wife and children in the United States "as refugees", the church leader and activists said Friday, February 1.
Pastor Omar Gude Perez, wife Kenia Denis and their two children entered the U.S. Thursday, January 31, after Cuban emigration authorities allowed them to leave the Communist-run island following an 18-month wait for appropriate paperwork.
Gude Perez expressed mixed feelings about their arrival. "My son, Omar Daniel, who is seventeen years old, has in just six months, lost fifty pounds of his bodily weight," he said in published remarks obtained by BosNewsLife.
"My daughter Keila Rosa, who will soon celebrate her fifteenth birthday – the dream of every little girl – has lost three-quarters of her hair since the Americans first told us we would be able to travel," the pastor added.
Pastor Gude Perez, who led a growing network of independent churches known as 'Apostolic Movement', was first imprisoned on what his friends called "trumped up charges" in May 2008.
A year later, he was sentenced to a more than six-year prison term for the alleged “falsification of documents” as he had "illegally" taken his stepfather’s surname.
Fellow Christians and human rights activists linked the detention to his prominent role within the Apostolic Movement.
"Communist Party officials, who oversee and regulate religious activity on the island, have publicly declared the government’s intention to eradicate the Apostolic Movement," said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which has closely followed the case.
"In recent years individuals affiliated with the group, at all levels, have been singled out for targeted persecution," CSW explained in a statement to BosNewsLife.
Gude Perez was released on conditional liberty amid an international outcry in early 2011. Yet, he was prohibited to work as a pastor or from traveling outside the city of Camaguey without official permission.
The U.S. offered asylum, but despite "multiple verbal promises" from Cuban officials, the family could not leave the country for 18 months, CSW said.
In November, Cuban state security officials reportedly contacted Pastor Gude Perez after his wife’s high profile visit to Washington DC where she highlighted their case.
It took till mid-January when "an exit permit" was issued, said CSW, which supports the family.
"We are overjoyed that the Gude Perez family has finally been allowed to take up the offer of asylum in the United States where they will be able to practice their faith in freedom," added CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston.
"The decision to leave Cuba has been a difficult and painful one for the family," he acknowledged. However, "The constant harassment on the part of the government and the official prohibition on their participation in religious ministry gave them no other option," Johnston claimed.
He told BosNewsLife that the family will "continue to fight for religious freedom in Cuba from their new home in the United States." They will be "an effective voice for their network of churches, which continues to suffer targeted persecution," he said.
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