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NCC Leads 30-Member Ecumenical Delegation to Cuba Jan. 22-28

January 13, 2004, NEW YORK CITY - Consultation with Cuban churches on shared concerns and celebration of the consecration of a new Greek Orthodox cathedral in Havana will top the agenda of a January 22-28 U.S. church leaders' delegation visit to Cuba.

Led by the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches U.S.A., the delegation also has requested a meeting with Cuba's President Fidel Castro, at which the NCC is hoping to discuss church concerns and issues pertaining to U.S.-Cuban relations, including the harsh sentences imposed on 75 dissidents by Cuba's courts in spring 2003.

The 30-member delegation counts members from at least nine NCC member denominations and four state ecumenical councils, along with staff of the NCC and the global humanitarian agency Church World Service.

Relationships between the NCC, CWS and their 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican member denominations on the one hand and the Cuban Council of Churches on the other hand have held fast since before the Cuban Revolution. They have worked together for a normalization of relations between their two countries and on church-to-church issues and joint humanitarian projects. Since 1992, Church World Service has sent more than 50 humanitarian aid shipments to Cuba valued at more than $3 million.

SCHEDULE DETAILS

January 23-25, the NCC delegation will participate in events surrounding the consecration of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Old Havana, Cuba -- the first new church to be constructed in Cuba in more than 40 years, according to the "Greece Now" Web site (www.greece.gr).

This celebration will be led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.

The Greek Orthodox community in Cuba dates back to the turn of the 20th century. The Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Havana served the sizeable business and diplomatic community there, but it was converted into a theater during the Cuban revolution and the Orthodox community scattered.

The opening of St. Nicholas Cathedral marks the reorganization of the Greek Orthodox community in Cuba, which is part of the Mexico City-based Metropolis of Panama and Central America, led by Metropolitan Athenagoras since it was established in 1997. Now recognized by the Cuban government, the Greek Orthodox Church in Cuba hopes also to recover Saints Constantine and Helen Church for worship.

Culminating the celebration will be the service called "Opening of the Doors." In January 2002, Elenie K. Huszagh, Esq., the National Council of Churches U.S.A.'s President in 2002-2003, participated in the liturgy and groundbreaking for the new St. Nicholas Cathedral.

The delegation will spend January 26-28 in a region-wide consultation hosted by the Cuban Council of Churches, focused on shared pastoral concerns of the church in the context of current U.S.-Latin American relations. Cuban and U.S. church leaders will be joined by other Latin American and Caribbean counterparts for the consultation, which aims to develop plans for collaboration in mission and to seek ways to improve relations among their countries.

MEETING REQUESTED WITH PRESIDENT CASTRO

In this meeting with President Castro, the NCC hopes to discuss the severity of sentences imposed by Cuba's courts on 75 dissidents in spring 2003. According to Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, NCC Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace, "From a moral standpoint, this issue is of crucial interest to the National Council of Churches. We find the sentences excessive."

Dr. Kireopoulos said this would be the NCC's third overture to the Cuban government on the arrest, trial and sentencing of 75 members of Cuba's political opposition to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years.

The Rev. Fred Morris, the NCC's Director for Latin American and Caribbean Affairs, raised the issue with Cuban Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón in Havana in June. And NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar expressed his concern in a Nov. 21, 2003, letter to President Castro announcing the forthcoming NCC delegation visit.

Framing the concern in the context of the NCC's more than 40 years of work to improve relations between the United States and Cuba, the Rev. Dr. Edgar had urged President Castro to "please take advantage of the coming Christmas Season to declare an amnesty for those dissidents, either reducing their sentences greatly, or, better yet, simply freeing them as a sign of good will and desire to work toward reconciliation." Normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba long has been a goal of the NCC. To date, no response has been received to the letter, Dr. Kireopoulos said.

While in Cuba, the group also expects to spend time at a Presbyterian Church synod meeting, and is seeking to make a pastoral visit to the family of Elian Gonzalez. The NCC helped lay the groundwork for young Gonzalez's return to his family in Cuba in 2000.

Heads of Communion to take part in the delegation are: The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church (USA); Dr. Major Jemison, President, Progressive National Baptist Convention; the Rev. Chris Hobgood, President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and Presiding Bishop George Walker of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Other church representatives include Bishop Dimitrios, Ecumenical Officer, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; the Rev. Martin Ritsi, Executive Director, Orthodox Christian Mission Center; the Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts, General Secretary, Progressive National Baptist Convention; the Rev. Jhonny Alicea Baez, Latin America Desk, Reformed Church in America, and Bishop C. Christopher Epting, Ecumenical Officer, The Episcopal Church.

From state councils of churches: the Rev. John Boonstra, Washington Council of Churches; David Leslie, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, and the Rev. David Anderson, Illinois Conference of Churches, all executive directors, along with Richard Cline, Director of Refugees, Virginia Council of Churches. The Rev. Fred Morris, Director for Latin American and Caribbean Relations of the NCC is also representing the Florida Council of Churches. The delegation also will include the CWS Executive Director, the Rev. John L. McCullough, and the CWS Associate for Latin America and the Caribbean, Martin Coria.

Others traveling include Steve Horswill-Johnston, United Methodist Communications; Geoff Thale, Washington Office on Latin America; James Armstrong, Rollins College; Harry Fielding, Community of Christ Church; Anthropologist Dr. Sidney Greenfield; John and Eileen McGuckin, Union Theological Seminary (New York); Debbie Hadjes Funti, a long-time Greek Orthodox delegate to the NCC General Assembly, and United Methodist Stan Campbell.

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