US Cuba travel ban violates religious freedom, say agencies
The National Council of Churches USA and Church World Service (the churchesí global development agency) have joined with other organizations to renew objections to new American government restrictions on travel to Cuba.
"The current US policy toward Cuba restricts religious freedom and is contrary to the principles upon which our nation was founded," said the Rev Brenda Girton-Mitchell, the NCC staff executive for justice and advocacy, during a news conference last week.
She continued: "We reiterate our call on the US government to respect religious freedom and restore the less restrictive travel licenses that we have had for decades."
Last year, the NCC and CWS, along with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, American Baptist Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ Global Ministries, received notices from the US Office of Foreign Assets that their existing licenses for religious travel to Cuba would not be renewed.
Instead, religious organizations have been offered very restricted licenses that only allow up to four delegations annually with a limited number of participants who have to be identified at the time of the license application.
Churches often do not know at the time of license application which members will request travel during the year and say it is unrealistic to place a four-trip limit on denominational agencies representing millions of members.
The US Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which recommended the travel restrictions that were adopted by President Bush in May of 2004, is expected to make new recommendations in the coming weeks when it issues its second report.
According to the Center for International Policy, the new recommendations will likely be as restrictive as the previous ones, which virtually eliminated academic exchanges between the United States and Cuba and severely limited travel by Cuban Americans. The limitations have been particularly felt by Cuban families with members in both countries.
"Dramatically limiting exchange between the U.S. and Cuba is more than an annoyance, it is dangerously counterproductive," says Joy Olson of the Washington Office on Latin America.
When the new travel restrictions were first released in 2004, the Rev Bob Edgar, a United Methodist and the NCC's chief executive, voiced his concern in a statement. Increased engagement is needed in the US relationship with Cuba because it leads to "change, reform and the opening of society," he said.
"We must do all we can to increase dialogue, not stifle it," said Edgar.
In addition to the call for less restrictive travel licenses, the NCC has expressed concern about the actions taken by the current US administration against the Cuban Council of Churches.
In the past year, the State Department has adopted a policy to deny visas for religious travel to the United States by officials of the Cuban Council of Churches because it believes these officials are agents of the Cuban government. However, the State Department has not provided any evidence of this.
Martin Shupack, CWS Associate Director for Public Policy, said this amounts to the US government intruding in internal church affairs.
He added that in his experience "the Cuban Council of Churches is the authentic ecumenical expression of Christians in Cuba and to interfere with that religious expression is wrong."
The NCC and CWS have had an ecumenical relationship with the Cuban Conference of Churches for more than 50 years. For church leaders, this relationship underscores the biblical mandate for Christians to be in fellowship with one another.
"The foundation of our relationship with the Cuban Conference of Churches is the fraternal bond of Christian love and fellowship that unite in one body the universal church of Christ in the world," said Ms Girton-Mitchell.
She concluded: "We call upon the US government to respect religious freedom and refrain (from) hindering sacred relationships within the Body of Christ."
[Also on Ekklesia: Concern over forced closure of churches in Cuba; US Presbyterians call an end to Cuba travel restrictions; Bishop urges Bush to allow help for Cuba; Axis of evil offers to come to America's rescue; Theologians gather to address religion, violence and globalisation]