US Presbyterians call an end to Cuba travel restrictions
The moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, Rick Ufford-Chase, who recently travelled to Cuba, has called for an end to the travel restrictions which, he says, isolate Christians from one another and maintain unnecessary tensions.
As the Bush administration continues to tighten the US trade embargo on the Cuba, students, academics, Cuban-Americans and religious groups are finding their travel increasingly restricted.
"We are asking the government of the United States to make more available licenses for religious leaders, because we think that it's more important than ever to be building strong relationships between these two churches," Ufford-Chase said recently during a six-day visit to the Caribbean island.
The State and Treasury departments have stopped issuing travel licenses to Cuba for church agencies and organizations engaging in mission work. The government is now issuing licenses that substantially restrict religious travel for denominations, while providing greater access to individual congregations.
Cuban Presbyterians say the ban keeps many would-be visitors away, depriving believers of valuable opportunities to exchange ideas, traditions, values and experiences.
"Lifting the restrictions would help us a lot, because we really want to break the isolation, and the only way to breakdown the isolation is to have encounters face-to-face," said the Rev Ofelia Ortega, a Cuban Presbyterian minister who also serves as the World Council of Churches' president for the Caribbean and Latin America.
"You can send letters, you can send documents, you can make statements," Ortega said, "but nothing could really be a substitute for a face-to-face encounter."
The Treasury Department enforces the 45-year-old trade embargo of Cuba, which was loosened somewhat during the Clinton administration, then tightened by President George W. Bush before the 2004 election to pressure the Castro-led government.
Cuban authorities called the move an electoral ploy intended to placate anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Florida.
People of faith on both sides of the Caribbean would like to see the ban lifted. They say the Bush administration is imposing an undue hardship on church groups engaged in ecumenical and mission work in Cuba.
Many in Cuba contend that it is unacceptable for politics and government to prevent connections between believers.
"It would be much better if the churches were totally free to develop their partnerships in a normal way," said the Rev Hector Mendez, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Havana. "We think we need to keep fighting against any limitations that make it hard for us to have normal relations as partner churches. We think that the relationship between our two churches, the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the church in Cuba, should be an example for our two governments."
The current administration opposes any relaxation of the sanctions unless Castro allows free elections and releases political prisoners. Bush says the travel restriction, imposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, is a way of denying economic resources to Castro and his regime.
Ufford-Chase, who visited 13 Cuban Presbyterian churches on his tour and met with a number of religious leaders, doesn't see it that way. He expressed disappointment that the travel ban hasn't been lifted to enable the churches to work together for peace in both countries.
"There's so much we can exchange," he said. "It's a two-way street." Ufford-Chase said the church's mission transcends political ideologies.
"The church's role is always to try and insist that we will live as faithfully as possible," he said. "Sometimes that puts us in opposition to our government, both in the United States and here in Cuba, and that's appropriate. It's the role of the church to be insisting that the values of Jesus are the same values that are going to be lived out by any of our governments."
Cuban religious leaders agreed, contending that the four-decade-old travel ban is outdated and counterproductive. Cuban Presbyterians said they believe the travel controls are the most significant remnant of the old embargo or "blockade," as Cubans call it.
"I really do believe as these restrictions start to disappear, that it will contribute to a greater understanding between our two countries," said the Rev Carlos Camps, secretary general of the 13,000-member Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba (IPRC). "I think that the dialogue and the increased understanding between people is the way forward for better relations between our governments."
Camps, who has a daughter who lives in the United States, said he believes it is important to dispel Americans' misconceptions about the state of religion in Cuba - for example, the notion that Cubans must worship "underground," as they sometimes did during the early days of the revolution.
In 1992, Castro changed Cuba's official status from "atheist" to "secular." Since then, Christians and other faith groups have been growing exponentially.
Ortega, who has also served as president of Matanzas Evangelical Seminary in Cuba, said the travel limitations keep Americans from appreciating how vibrant the Cuban Presbyterian church is.
"We hope when we have face-to-face encounters that the person will return and tell the story of what they found when they encountered the Cuban church people," she said, noting that Presbyterian congregations on the island are healthy and growing.
Ortega said the travel restrictions have some important negative effects.
"We need the company of people from churches in different parts of the world to accompany us and to criticize us when there is something that is not a real part of the mission of the church," she said. "Then we can analyze our reality in a more objective way."
The PC (USA) once had a two-year license that didn't specify how many trips could be taken to Cuba. Under the new regulations, it has a one-year license and a limit of four trips, one per calendar quarter, according to the Rev. Tricia Lloyd-Sidle, the PC (USA)'s regional liaison for the Caribbean.
Lloyd-Sidle joined a delegation of religious leaders in a March 15 meeting in Washington, called by members of Congress, to demand that government agencies cease attempts to curtail religious freedom by restricting travel by church agencies to Cuba.
The group said the restrictions impede the ability of churches to engage in mission work and make it difficult for U.S. church leaders to bring their Cuban counterparts to the United States.
The Rev Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the PC (USA), joined about a dozen other religious leaders in sending letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary John Snow, calling for the administration to restore the general licenses previously held by ecumenical agencies and national denominational agencies.
The restricted license not only limits travel to one trip per quarter, but also requires applicants - the PC (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and others - to list the names of up to 25 people who will travel under the license.
Lloyd-Sidle said churches often don't know at the time of license application which members will have reason to travel during the year; she said it's unrealistic to place a four-trip limit on denominational agencies representing millions of members.
"It takes away any flexibility, it takes away the ability to respond should there be a crisis, a hurricane or any kind of crisis in Cuba that the Cuban church might ask us as the national Presbyterian Church in the United States to respond to," she said. "We would not be able to put a team of people together to respond unless their names were already on the license."
Thus far the tougher regulations have not affected the number of Presbyterians travelling legally to Cuba, according to Lloyd-Sidle. She said 33 Presbyterian groups reported visiting Cuba last year, 35 visited in 2004, and 33 in 2003.
She said the new restrictions have made it harder for presbyteries to establish partnerships with Cuban churches.
"One way or another, people are getting there (to Cuba), but it's made it much harder to plan between the two churches, between presbyteries, and to have programs like travel study seminars or meetings," she said.
Some Cuban religious leaders said their contact with US partners has been reduced from regular trips to email correspondence.
Marta Elvis Collazo, an elder at Juan G. Hall Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cardenas, knows how frustrating the restrictions can be. She has been working with a US partner in South Louisiana Presbytery.
"It is always a very joyful moment when we can be together," she said. "We're very happy, for example, with the moderator's visit here today. So yes, it's sad if we have a visit planned and then it doesn't happen because the group doesn't have its license. It means we can't get as close."
Cuban president Fidel Castro has maintained a life-long interest in Christianity, and was famously interviewed for a book on religion by Catholic liberation theologian Frei Betto.
Cuban church leaders have played an important role in the worldwide church movement, with the Rev Dr Carlos Ham working as evangelism secretary and mission coordinator for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.
Cuba has a first-rate record on health, education and social equality ñ especially given the US-coordinated economic blockade. It has just entered into an alternative Latin American socialist trade partnership with Bolivia and Venezuela.
However political freedom and human rights for opponents of the Castro government remains a significant problem, and government relations with Catholics (as distinct from Protestants) are distinctly frosty and tense.
Lat week a leading Cuban dissident said she was badly beaten up by government supporters as she headed for a meeting organised by United States officials, according to the BBC.
Martha Beatriz Roque said about a dozen people pushed her to the ground in front of her Havana home and one of them punched her in the face.
The 60-year-old economist was jailed in 2003 with 74 other dissidents but was freed a year later on health grounds. Fidel Castro's government says its opponents are paid agents of the US.
"They have been bothering Martha for months, but this is the first time she has been treated so brutally," Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, told Reuters.
President Castro says that Cuban dissidents are mercenaries in the pay of the US, and are not representative of public opinion.
Human rights groups say attacks on dissidents are increasing and are part of organised attempts to intimidate government critics.
[Ekklesia gratefully thanks Evan Silverstein for the substantial section of this report on the recent Presbyterian Church visit to Cuba, via Presbyterian News Service - http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/]