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NCC, CWS, protest Cuba travel restrictions

May 26, 2006, Washington, D.C. The National Council of Churches and Church World Service joined with other organizations to renew objections to new government travel restrictions to Cuba in a news conference at the National Press Club here Thursday.

"The current U.S. policy toward Cuba restricts religious freedom and is contrary to the principles upon which our nation was founded," said NCC's Associate General Secretary for Justice and Advocacy Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, who spoke at the news conference.

"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 Church World Service along with several member denominations, including the American Baptist Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, 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. Churches often do not know at the time of license application which church 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 are likely to be as unrealistic as the previous ones which virtually eliminated academic exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, and severely limited travel by Cuban Americans causing further suffering to Cuban families in addition to the restrictions on religious travel.

Joy Olson of the Washington Office on Latin America, who also participated in Thursday's news conference, said, "Dramatically limiting exchange between the U.S. and Cuba is more than an annoyance, it is dangerously counterproductive."

In a statement issued by NCC General Secretary Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar in 2004 when the new travel restrictions were first released, increased engagement is needed in the U.S. relationship with Cuba because it leads to "change, reform and the opening of society."

"We must do all we can to increase dialogue, not stifle it," said Edgar.

In addition to the call for less restrictive travel licenses, the NCC also 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 U.S. by officials of the Cuban Council of Churches because they believe these officials are agents of the Cuban government. However, they have not provided any evidence for this assertion.

Martin Shupack, Church World Service's 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 National Council of Churches and Church World Service 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 hindering sacred relationships within the body of Christ."

NCC News contact: Dan Webster, 212.870.2252.


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