|Church leaders visit Capitol Hill over Cuba travel|
Leaders from Christian denominations and ecumenical
organizations visit U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (center) on Capitol Hill
June 14. Rangel has introduced a bill to end the U.S. ban on travel to
Cuba. A UMNS photo courtesy of Rep. Charles Rangel.
By Lesley Crosson*
June 19, 2007 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)
In an effort to get the U.S. government to ease restrictions on
religious travel to Cuba, a delegation of leaders from Christian
denominations and ecumenical organizations lobbied key lawmakers June 14
on Capitol Hill.
Jerald McKie, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Global
Ministries, was among leaders trying to garner support for proposed
House and Senate legislation that would end a ban on travel to Cuba for
Based on encouragement received during their lobbying efforts, Church
World Service and its partners intend to meet with other influential
members of Congress to build support for the pending legislation.
Bills introduced by Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Jeff Flake
R-Ariz., in the House of Representatives and by Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.,
and Byron Dorgan D-N.D., in the Senate, would end the U.S. ban on
travel to Cuba for all Americans.
The bills continue to collect co-sponsors, and the delegation received
encouragement from long-time supporters like Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.,
who restated his "commitment" to an end to the travel restrictions, and
Rep. Jeff Flake R-Ariz., who thanked them for the church's work on the
issue. "Of all the efforts to bring change, this work by the church is
one of the most important," Flake said.
In a series of meetings with lawmakers and legislative aides, the
delegation voiced concern that any new legislation be broad enough to
allow unlimited religious travel.
The hoped-for legislation is high on the churches' agenda because
mainline Christian denominations and their ecumenical agencies say their
religious work with Cuban partner churches and agencies has been
seriously crippled over the past two years.
"There have always been regulations that we have had to abide by,"
said delegation leader Martin Shupack, associate director for public
policy at Church World Service, "but what has changed is the
interpretation of those rules under the current administration."
Church work hampered
Since 2004, the United States has drastically limited travel to Cuba
by Cuban Americans wishing to visit family members, scientists, academic
researchers, students and, since mid-2005, national and regional
The restricted license limits religious travel to only one trip per
quarter and requires applicants-like Church World Service, The United
Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian
Church (USA) and others-to list on the application the names of up to
25 people who will travel under the license. But in some cases, national
church bodies have been unable to acquire even these restricted
During the Capitol Hill meetings, delegation members gave vivid
examples of the negative effect on their work and witness in the Latin
McKie described how 15 long-term projects of The United Methodist
Church in Cuba have suffered. The last time representatives from the
church's mission board were able to visit those projects and their Cuban
ecumenical partners was in March of 2006.
"We applied for renewal shortly after returning from that trip, and
we still have not received the license," she said. "All we have received
is a letter saying that it is 'pending'. This has been going on for
more than 15 months now."
The effect of the ongoing delays for The United Methodist Church and
other denominations is to deny churches and the people of Cuba needed
assistance from their partner churches in the United States and to
severely hinder Christian fellowship and nurturance between churches in
the two countries.
"The church is on fire for the Lord in Cuba," McKie said. "It is
filled with young people lined up and packing house churches and
storefront churches. We need to be able to walk with these people and to
nurture that spirit as their partners in faith."
Like The United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Churches and
Global Ministries of the Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ
have applied for but not received the restricted licenses. Mary Weaver
of the American Baptist Churches told about recently receiving a letter
from Baptist churches in Cuba expressing concern about the lack of
visits and feeling that they are being forgotten by U.S. Baptists.
In a June 12 letter to members of Congress, leaders of 13 mainline
Christian denominations and national or regional bodies underscored
their grave concern over the restrictions. They urged lawmakers to
support the "Export Freedom to Cuba Act of 2007" (HR-654) introduced by
Reps. Rangel and Flake, and the "Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2007"
(S.721). "We believe (the restrictions) are unfair and inappropriate,
restrain religious freedom and reflect undue governmental interference
in the exercise of religion," the letter stated.
Other members of the religious delegation were the Rev. Felix
Ortiz-Cotto, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of
Christ; the Rev. Phil Jones, Church of the Brethren; Alex Baumgarten,
The Episcopal Church; Kimberly C. Stietz, Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America; Marilyn J. Seiber, Presbyterian Church (USA); Claire
Rodriguez, Latin America Working Group; and Elsa Falkenburger,
Washington Office on Latin America.
*Crosson is a communications staff member for Church World Service.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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