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Church: 23 Cuban youngsters defect

From Lucia Newman
CNN Havana Bureau

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Twenty-three of the 200 Cuban youngsters who attended the World Youth Conference in Toronto, Canada, decided not to return to the communist island, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba said Monday.

The youngsters are in hiding in a "safe house" until Tuesday, when the Cuban delegation is slated to return to Cuba, said Joe Garcia of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Garcia said relatives of the youths from Texas, New York, New Jersey and Florida had traveled to Canada to help them seek asylum.

The weeklong conference culminated Sunday with a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II, who left Monday for Guatemala, where he arrived late in the afternoon.

In a statement issued by the Catholic Church in Havana on behalf of the Catholic bishops conference of Cuba , spokesman Orlando Marquez Hidalgo said most of those who chose not to return were from the dioceses of Pinar del Rio, in western Cuba, and Santiago de Cuba, in eastern Cuba.

In addition to those who had the support of family members from the United States, some of the youths separated themselves from the group on their own, leaving farewell notes, the statement said.

"We have also been informed that this action has left a bitter taste among the rest of the delegation," Marquez said.

In a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, asked that the youths be granted asylum.

"I urge you to take all necessary steps to assure the well-being of the young Cubans who are seeking freedom in Canada and to facilitate the process by which they may claim political asylum," Diaz-Balart said.




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