Venezuela officials detain, free 4 North Dakota missionaries

AP News
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Posted: Feb 28, 2015 8:35 PM

Four North Dakota missionaries were released by Venezuelan authorities Saturday after being detained and questioned for several days, a pastor at their church said.

Bruce Dick, lead pastor at Bethel Evangelical Free Church in Devils Lake, said the three men and one woman were released Saturday morning after being in custody since Wednesday.

U.S. Embassy Press Director Glenn Guimond said the missionaries boarded a plane out of the country and would not be allowed back for two years.

It was unclear Saturday why the missionaries were detained by Venezuelan authorities, and Dick said he couldn't comment until he spoke with them. He said they flew to Aruba, where they planned to rest for at least a day.

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have been steadily deteriorating. Earlier this month, President Nicolas Maduro accused the U.S. of working with local opposition groups to stage a coup that involved bombing the presidential palace. Washington called the accusation ludicrous.

The pastor said the missionaries were taken Wednesday from Ocumare de la Costa, a small coastal town where they have been working to establish a church, to the city of Maracay. He said they were steadily questioned by authorities over the approximately three days, but couldn't say what they were questioned about.

A local Venezuelan pastor with whom the group often works was detained with the four missionaries, Dick said.

The missionaries were treated well, Dick said, adding that they were able to keep their cellphones and send text messages and make brief phone calls to loved ones.

"They didn't fear for their lives or anything, it was just question after question," he said.

The group has worked with a partner church in the Venezuelan city of El Limon since 2002, Dick said, and they've been making efforts for several years to establish a church in Ocumare on their annual trips. Dick himself has been to the country three times.

While political tensions have increased between the U.S. and Venezuela, Dick said the group's mission is solely service-oriented.

"We've not even put our toe in that water," he said. "We like to say that we're there to serve. We don't make any political issues whatsoever."

News of the group's release was met with relief in Devils Lake, a town of roughly 7,500 about an hour's drive from the Canadian border.

"We're just very, very thankful for all the people that have been praying and even more thankful that God allowed them to be released," said Helen Petty, whose husband, Dr. Russell Petty, was one of the four missionaries detained.

Dick said he was waiting to hear whether the group had finalized its plans to return from Aruba.

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Associated Press writer Hannah Dreier in Caracas contributed to this report.

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Kevin Burbach can be reached on Twitter https://twitter.com/kevinburbach .