HAVANA Plainclothes police kicked their way into a Roman Catholic church in eastern Cuba, beat and used pepper spray on a group of dissidents, church officials and rights activists said on Wednesday.
They said seven people were arrested on Tuesday when police entered the parish church of Santa Teresita in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city, in search of government opponents.
"I thought the church was on fire when I heard all the shouting," parish priest Jose Conrado Rodriguez said by phone.
He said police handcuffed the detainees who were among a group of two dozen people who had marched through the streets protesting the arrest of a fellow dissident.
The dissidents, dressed in black, arrived at Rodriguez's church to attend Mass and mingled with parishioners.
"I told the police they acted like barbarians. They kicked their way into the parish, beating people and spraying gas in their eyes," the priest said.
Rodriguez, an outspoken critic of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, said the police action was led by a lieutenant colonel of the state security forces, who was dressed in civilian clothes and gave him no explanations.
During a sermon in 1994, Rodriguez read a letter he wrote to Castro criticizing the Cuban Coast Guard for ramming a tugboat that had been commandeered by people attempting to sail to the United States. The tug sank and 40 drowned.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Cuba deplored Wednesday's incident, which occurred at a time of improved relations between Cuba's ruling Communist Party and the church.
"We hope it is an isolated thing. The fact that the police burst into a church is serious," said Jose Felix Perez, a spokesman for the bishops.
The Cuban government had no immediate comment.
Cuba's main rights group, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, condemned what it termed a "most serious and almost unprecedented act of political repression" and called for an official inquiry.
A woman who was beaten and arrested in the church was released early on Wednesday because she had recently given birth, the group said. Another man who took part in the dissident march was picked up by police on Wednesday, it said.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, editing by Philip Barbara)