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Religious leaders protest new restrictions on Cuba travel

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A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

Worshipers fill the sanctuary of J.W. Branscomb Methodist Church in Holguin, Cuba, in 2002. Religious leaders are protesting U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba.
March 17, 2006

By Lesley Crosson*

NEW YORK (UMNS) — A delegation of religious leaders joined a March 15 meeting in Washington, called by members of Congress, to demand that U.S. government agencies cease attempts to curtail religious freedom by imposing restrictive regulations on travel by church agencies to Cuba.

Officials of the U.S. State and Treasury Departments listened to the concerns raised by members of Congress and the religious delegation, which was organized by Church World Service. Delegation members included the Rev. Jorge Domingues and Jerald McKie, executives with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

The Rev. John McCullough, a United Methodist and CWS executive director, also sent letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary John Snow. The letters, signed by 11 other heads of mainline Protestant organizations, demanded an end to the restrictions.

The signers included the Rev. Larry Pickens, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, and the Rev. Robert Edgar, a United Methodist and chief executive of the National Council of Churches.

Pickens said his commission hopes to send a delegation to Cuba in October. He believes the Bush administration “is placing an undue hardship on church groups engaged in some very significant ecumenical and mission work in Cuba. Many of our churches, the United Methodist Church included, have longstanding relationships with churches in Cuba.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

Members of the Methodist Church in Cuba celebrate the donation of bicycles by World Methodist Evangelism in 2002.

The controversy centers on a decision by the state and treasury departments to stop issuing national church agencies and organizations general licenses to travel to Cuba for purposes of mission work.

The government now is issuing new licenses that substantially restrict religious travel by denominations and religious organizations, while providing greater Cuba travel access to individual congregations.

McCullough declared that the group was “long past” the point of seeking an explanation for the government’s actions. “We are dismayed and even outraged at the loss of these licenses, and by what we view as unjustified interference in and hindrance of the mission of the church,” he said. “We are asking for the rights of our churches and ecumenical organizations to continue our historic work in Cuba to be restored, protected and respected.”

The restricted license limits religious travel to only one trip per quarter and requires applicants — such as CWS, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and others — to list on the application the names of up to 25 people who will travel under the license.

Churches often do not know at the time of license application which church members will request travel during the year, and they say it is unrealistic to place a four-trip limit on denominational agencies representing millions of members.

Ecumenical agencies like Church World Service and the National Council of Churches are cooperative efforts representing nearly 40 large denominations, and national denominational agencies represent tens of millions of members of local congregations.

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A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. H. Eddie Fox.

The Rev. H. Eddie Fox (second from left), with the World Methodist Council, helps lead prayer during a 2001 evangelism event for the Methodist Church in Cuba.

Citing decades of missionary and humanitarian work in the island nation, McCullough said the mission of the church “has long transcended political ideologies and changes of government in Cuba, as well as in other parts of the world.”

Since 2004, the U.S. administration has taken a series of actions to limit travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans wishing to visit family members, as well as by scientists, academic researchers, students and now national religious bodies.

The Rev. Tony Kireopoulos, an NCC executive, said he found the meeting “quite encouraging, in that officials from the State Department and the Treasury Department were able to hear why churches representing millions of U.S. citizens are concerned about these misplaced restrictions on religious practice.”

“While we may disagree with the policy itself, it is nonetheless a fact that the current regulations negatively impact the mission of our churches, and that is unacceptable to us. I think the officials with whom we met understood that, but we will continue to inform our churches about these new restrictions and advocate for them to be changed,” Kireopoulos said.

In the letters sent to Rice and Snow, McCullough and other religious leaders raised their voices in a call for the administration to restore the general licenses previously held by ecumenical agencies and national denominational agencies.

They insisted that the new policy impedes the ability of local congregations to engage in mission work in Cuba through their national agencies and makes it nearly impossible for U.S. church leaders to bring Cuban church leaders to the United States.

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Photo by the Latin America Working Group

Representatives of several denominations confer on Cuba travel restrictions before meeting with U.S. officials in Washington.

Additional signatories to the letters are Bishop Frank T. Griswold, primate, Episcopal Church; Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Rev. Stan Hastey, executive director, Alliance for Baptists; the Rev. M.L. Jemison, president, Progressive National Baptist Convention; and the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Also, the Rev. A. Roy Medley, chief executive, American Baptist Churches USA; the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, president, Wider Church Ministries, United Church of Christ; the Rev. Tyrone Pitts, chief executive, Progressive National Baptist Convention; and the Rev. David A. Vargas, president, Division of Overseas Ministries, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Besides McCullough, Domingues, McKie and Kireopoulos, members of the religious delegation included Martin Shupack and the Rev. Richard Williams, Church World Service; the Rev. Raquel Rodriguez, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Rev. Tricia Lloyd-Sidle, Presbyterian Church USA; the Rev. Stan Hastey, Alliance of Baptists; the Rev. Felix Ortiz-Cotto, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ; the Rev. Earl Trent Jr., Progressive National Baptist Convention; and resource people from the Washington-based Latin America Working Group.

*Crosson is part of the communications staff for Church World Service. UMNS contributed to this story.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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