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NCC member communion
fined $34,000 for Cuba ministry

Washington, August 9, 2006 – A National Council of Churches member communion has been fined $34,000 by a U.S. government agency for allegedly engaging in tourist activities during recent mission visits to churches in Cuba. 

But Stan Hastey, executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, said the Treasury Department misinterpreted some mission activities as tourism – in one case because the religious work took place in a beach town near Havana. 

And Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, associate general secretary of the NCC for International Affairs and Peace, quickly expressed support for the Alliance. “American and Cuban churches have cooperated for years, in both ministry and in getting aid to Cubans who desperately need it. U.S.  Churches have a constitutionally guaranteed  right  to carry out ministry and help the poor no matter where they are. The fine goes against this principle. ” 

Treasury's fine for the Alliance came shortly after administration officials issued a report calling for further restrictions on religious groups in Cuba with which Americans could work. On July 10, the Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba made several recommendations for U.S. officials to follow in enforcing the Cuba embargo in ways that, according to the commission, would smooth the transition from Cuban President Fidel Castro's regime to a more democratic one.

The NCC, like the Alliance of Baptists and other members, has openly opposed a recommendation by the CAFC Commission that would  prohibit U.S. church aid to Cuba via the Cuban Council of Churches, which the commission considers to be controlled by the Cuban government.

"We have had an ecumenical relationship with the Cuban Council of Churches for a long time, as have churches and councils of churches around the world," said Kireopoulos. "President Bush's approval of these recommendations indicates that this administration is trying to dictate who our church partners can be and how our humanitarian agencies can deliver aid to people who need it. That is an incredible intrusion into free exercise of religion."  

"They're trying to manage and control religious travel to Cuba in ways that they view as promoting the administration's political polices, and we think that that is an intrusion into religious affairs and a violation of religious freedom," said Martin Shupack, Church World Service's associate director for public policy.   Church World Service is a humanitarian agency supported by the NCC's 35 communions.  "What it looks to me like is they are favoring some religious groups over others for the sake of their political objectives," he continued. "And I don't think the government has any business, constitutionally or morally, to be doing that. I think that's interfering in religious affairs by making those kinds of judgments."

Hastey said Alliance leaders have until early September to respond to the fine notice. It outlined a procedure by which the group may officially appeal the ruling or negotiate for a settlement. He said the group was exploring "all options" as of July 7 but had not yet reached a decision.

(Based on reports by Robert Marus, ABP news, and NCC News.)

Contact NCC News: Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228; Rev. Daniel Webster, 212-870-2252

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