Cuba travel ban unjust and unfair, say US church leaders

By staff writers
June 13, 2007

US Christian leaders are continuing to press the Bush administration and Congress to end current restrictive bans on travel to Cuba, calling on the House of Representatives and Senate to support related bipartisan legislation now in both houses.

In a statement issued to both Senate and House members, executive-level leaders of global humanitarian agency Church World Service, the National Council of Churches USA, and 11 of the largest mainline US Christian denominations urged lawmakers to co-sponsor and support the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2007 (S721) and the Export Freedom to Cuba Act of 2007 (HR 654).

Tomorrow (14 June 2007), Church World Service and denominational policy advocates in Washington, Christian denominational mission executives, and representatives of the Washington Office on Latin America and the Latin American Working Group will meet with House and Senate members and staff to further press for passage of the bills, which would end travel restrictions by all US citizens to the island nation.

The faith coalition’s statement emphasizes that any Cuba travel legislation enacted by the 110th Congress should be broad enough to end the restrictions on religious travel by national, regional and local church bodies and ecumenical and interfaith organizations.

The statement protests current U.S. policy, saying, “National and regional denominational bodies and religious organizations are now eligible only for very restricted licenses.”

For the past two years a new Treasury Department policy interpretation has limited these kinds of religious organizations to one trip per quarter and the number of travelers in any delegation is restricted.

Citing a long, shared history of relationship, interaction with and support of Cuban church partners, the American faith leaders say the recent re-interpretations of U.S. travel regulations and the resulting limitations “are unfair and inappropriate, restrain religious freedom and reflect undue governmental interference in the exercise of religion.”

John McCullough, Executive Director and CEO of Church World Service, says, “It’s a policy that has substantially restricted our ability to work with our ecumenical partners in Cuba on matters of spiritual and communal support.”

McCullough also said the restrictions “have inconsistently limited religious travel by the broader church organizations, while readily approving more frequent visits by individual church congregations.”

By comparison, in the previous two years before the new restrictions were enacted, the National Council of Churches USA, which represents 45 million American Christians, took 33 delegations to Cuba. If the NCCUSA applied for the available license now, it would be limited to four trips per year.

In 2006, 17 Senators and 105 members of the House of Representatives wrote letters to then-Treasury Secretary John Snow expressing concern about the new restrictions on religious travel. The religious leaders say today Congress now has the opportunity to remove them.

McCullough says the restrictions on religious travel to Cuba are reflective of the broader policy “that also chokes off other vital forms of travel to Cuba, including restricted family visits, educational, academic visits and cultural exchanges.”

He added: “After more than half a century, the isolationist policy toward Cuba by successive U.S. administrations has completely failed to accomplish its intentions, and flies in the face of important American values including the right to travel, academic and religious freedoms, and protection of family relationships.”

Signatories of the ecumenical statement include: The Rev John L. McCullough, Executive Director and CEO, Church World Service; The Rev Robert W. Edgar General Secretary, National Council of Churches USA; The Rev Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; The Rev Dr. Stan Hastey, Executive Director, Alliance of Baptists; The Rev Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (USA); The Rev A. Roy Medley, General Secretary, American Baptist Churches USA; The Rev Stanley Noffsinger, General Secretary, Church of the Brethren General Board; The Rev Cally Rogers-Witte, Executive for Wider Church Ministries, United Church of Christ; The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church; The Rev John H. Thomas, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ; The Rev David A. Vargas, President, Division of Overseas Ministries, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); The Rev Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); The Rev James E. Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church.

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