Friday, September 08, 2006

The Alliance of Baptists challenges $34,000 fine for alleged Cuba policy violation

The Alliance of Baptists

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- The Alliance of Baptists has filed a formal challenge to a Treasury Department fine for allegedly violating the United States' economic embargo on Cuba.

Alliance officials sent the response Aug. 31 to the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which monitors violations of the embargo.

In July, OFAC officials informed Stan Hastey, the Alliance's executive director, that the group would be fined $34,000 for violations of the terms of the organization's travel license to Cuba. The agency alleged that members of five church missions teams traveling under the license between 2003 and 2005 violated the embargo by engaging in tourist activities while in Cuba.

The Alliance disputes those allegations. Hastey said Sept. 8 that, of the members of his board who responded to his e-mail inquiry about whether to fight the fine, "no one dissented."

The Alliance, a fellowship of 117 moderate-to-progressive churches with a $374,000 budget, has a longstanding missions partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba. The partnership pairs local Alliance congregations with counterpart Cuban churches.

Due to the U.S. embargo on Cuba's communist regime, religious groups must use renewable travel permits to travel to the island nation for religious activities. The permits are granted through OFAC.

More than a year ago, OFAC officials informed the Alliance of Baptists that its license had been suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations that a group from an Alliance church in Alabama had misused the license to visit Cuban tourist sites. Hastey said OFAC did not inform him any further about the investigation's progress. In the meantime, the original license expired.

The July 5 fine notice was the next official communication from OFAC to the Alliance. It informed Hastey the group would be fined not only for the alleged violations by the team from the Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, but also for alleged violations by four other Alliance churches. Those congregations are the First Baptist churches of Washington, D.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Greenville, S.C.; and Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville.

The Alliance's response includes affidavits from the five churches explaining their activities while in Cuba. OFAC regulations require that teams operating under such licenses be engaged in a "program of full-time religious activities."

Hastey has earlier said that some of the OFAC allegations are misunderstandings. For instance, the agency faulted the Birmingham team for staying in Varadero, a beach resort near Havana. But Hastey said the group stayed there not to go to the beach but in a Presbyterian guest house that was convenient to a nearby Baptist church the team was visiting.

Jim Somerville, pastor of Washington's First Baptist, said his three-member team visited museums and markets in Havana on the instruction of their hosts at the William Carey Baptist Church in Havana. The two churches were forming a missions partnership.

"Yes, one day we went to Old Havana, partly because our host [the Cuban church's pastor] said the best way you can partner with us is to learn about the history and the customs and the culture of the Cuban people," Somerville said. He noted the pastor suggested visiting cultural institutions and markets in Havana to "find out who we are."

Hastey said OFAC officials have not yet responded to the Alliance's challenge of the fine, and that they have not given him a timeline for responding. Should OFAC respond unfavorably, the next step is to ask for an administrative hearing within the agency.

Hastey said the Alliance's board, scheduled to meet in suburban Washington Sept. 14-15, will be discussing what to do next.

"If OFAC decides to go forward with a penalty, then I hope our board will approve going forward with the administrative hearing. If we receive an unfavorable decision at that point, then I don't know what we will do," he said.

According to Hastey, the Alliance's only options would be to pay the fine or to file a federal lawsuit challenging OFAC's decision.

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