Baptists face US government fine for Cuba mission trip
A National Council of Churches member communion has been fined 34,000 US dollars by an American government agency for allegedly engaging in tourist activities during recent mission visits to churches in Cuba.
But Stan Hastey, executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, said the Treasury Department has misinterpreted the situation - in one case because the religious work took place in a beach town near Havana.
Dr Antonios Kireopoulos, associate general secretary of the NCCUSA for International Affairs and Peace, quickly expressed support for the Alliance.
He declared: "American and Cuban churches have cooperated for years, in both ministry and in getting aid to Cubans who desperately need it. US Churches have a constitutionally guaranteed right to carry out ministry and help the poor no matter where they are. The fine goes against this principle."
The Treasury's fine for the Alliance came shortly after administration officials issued a report calling for further restrictions on religious groups in Cuba with which Americans could work.
On 10 July 2006, the Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC) made several recommendations for US officials to follow in enforcing the Cuba embargo in ways that, according to the commission, would smooth the transition from Cuban President Fidel Castro's regime to a more democratic one.
The NCCUSA, like the Alliance of Baptists and other members, has openly opposed a recommendation by his commission that would prohibit US church aid to Cuba via the Cuban Council of Churches, which the CAFC Commission considers to be controlled by the Cuban government.
"We have had an ecumenical relationship with the Cuban Council of Churches for a long time, as have churches and councils of churches around the world," said Kireopoulos. "If these recommendations are accepted by President Bush it would indicate that this administration is trying to dictate who our church partners can be and how our humanitarian agencies can deliver aid to people who need it. That is an incredible intrusion into free exercise of religion."
"They're trying to manage and control religious travel to Cuba in ways that they view as promoting the administration's political polices, and we think that that is an intrusion into religious affairs and a violation of religious freedom," said Martin Shupack, Church World Service's associate director for public policy.
Church World Service is a humanitarian agency supported by the NCCUSA's 35 communions. "What it looks to me like is they are favoring some religious groups over others for the sake of their political objectives," he continued. "And I don't think the government has any business, constitutionally or morally, to be doing that. I think that's interfering in religious affairs by making those kinds of judgments."
Hastey said Alliance leaders have until early September 2006 to respond to the fine notice. It outlined a procedure by which the group may officially appeal the ruling or negotiate for a settlement. He said the group was exploring "all options" as of 7 July but had not yet reached a decision.
With acknowledgements to Daniel Bell, NCCUSA, and Robert Marus, ABP news.
[Also on Ekklesia: Czech Protestant leader questions official Cuban churches 11/08/06; WCC speaks up for Cuban churches in US sanctions row 11/07/06; Bush report may ban aid and church relations with Cuba 03/07/06; US Cuba travel ban violates religious freedom, say agencies; US Anglicans seek to end Cuban isolation; Concern over forced closure of churches in Cuba; Christians face jail after President's call to visit Guant·namo; US Presbyterians call an end to Cuba travel restrictions; Bishop urges Bush to allow help for Cuba; Catholic Worker plans Guantanamo protests over Lent; US in talks to close Guantanamo Bay; Axis of evil offers to come to America's rescue; Christians told of Guantanamo Bay hunger strike; Ecumenists seek to recover evangelistic emphasis, Cuban WCC secretary says]