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Church groups renew objections to Cuba travel restrictions

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The Rev. Robert Edgar
May 30, 2006

By United Methodist News Service*

The National Council of Churches and Church World Service have joined with other organizations to renew objections to new U.S. government travel restrictions to Cuba.

“The current U.S. 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 May 25 news conference at the National Press Club.

“We reiterate our call on the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

About 700 worshipers fill the sanctuary of J.W. Branscomb Methodist Church in Holguin, Cuba, in 2002.

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 U.S. 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,” said Joy Olson of the Washington Office on Latin America, who also participated in the news conference.

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 U.S. 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.

Denying visas

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

United Methodist evangelists traveled to Cuba in May 2001 for the Second Congress on Evangelism for the Methodist Church at Camp Canaan.

In addition to the call for less restrictive travel licenses, the NCC expressed concern about the actions taken by the current U.S. 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 additional information as evidence.

Martin Shupack, CWS Associate Director for Public Policy, said this amounts to the U.S. government intruding in internal church affairs. “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 Girton-Mitchell. “We call upon the U.S. government to respect religious freedom and refrain (from) hindering sacred relationships within the body of Christ.”

*This story was provided by the National Council of Churches.

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

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