Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Church leaders visit Capitol Hill over Cuba travel

Worldwide Faith News

Date: Tue, 19 Jun 2007 17:09:30 -0500

News media contact: Linda Bloom * (646) 3693759* New York {308}

By Lesley Crosson*

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 U.S. citizens.

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 religious leaders.

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 licenses.

During the Capitol Hill meetings, delegation members gave vivid examples of the negative effect on their work and witness in the Latin American country.

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."

Broad-based concern

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.

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*Crosson is a communications staff member for Church World Service.

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