Religious leaders protest new restrictions on Cuba travel
March 17, 2006
By Lesley Crosson*
NEW YORK (UMNS) — A delegation of religious leaders joined a March 15 meeting
in Washington, called by members of Congress, to demand that U.S. government
agencies cease attempts to curtail religious freedom by imposing restrictive
regulations on travel by church agencies to Cuba.
Officials of the U.S. State and Treasury Departments listened to the concerns
raised by members of Congress and the religious delegation, which was organized
by Church World Service. Delegation members included the Rev. Jorge Domingues
and Jerald McKie, executives with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
The Rev. John McCullough, a United Methodist and CWS executive director, also
sent letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary
John Snow. The letters, signed by 11 other heads of mainline Protestant organizations,
demanded an end to the restrictions.
The signers included the Rev. Larry Pickens, chief executive of the United
Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, and the
Rev. Robert Edgar, a United Methodist and chief executive of the National Council
Pickens said his commission hopes to send a delegation
to Cuba in October. He believes the Bush administration “is placing
an undue hardship on church groups engaged in some very significant ecumenical
and mission work
in Cuba. Many of our churches, the United Methodist Church included, have longstanding
relationships with churches in Cuba.”
The controversy centers on a decision by the state and treasury departments
to stop issuing national church agencies and organizations general licenses
to travel to Cuba for purposes of mission work.
The government now is issuing new licenses that substantially restrict religious
travel by denominations and religious organizations, while providing greater
Cuba travel access to individual congregations.
McCullough declared that the group was “long past” the point of
seeking an explanation for the government’s actions. “We are dismayed
and even outraged at the loss of these licenses, and by what we view as unjustified
interference in and hindrance of the mission of the church,” he said. “We
are asking for the rights of our churches and ecumenical organizations to continue
our historic work in Cuba to be restored, protected and respected.”
The restricted license limits religious travel
to only one trip per quarter and requires applicants — such as CWS, the Episcopal Church, the United
Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and others — to list on
the application the names of up to 25 people who will travel under the license.
Churches often do not know at the time of license application which church
members will request travel during the year, and they say it is unrealistic
to place a four-trip limit on denominational agencies representing millions
Ecumenical agencies like Church World Service and the National Council of
Churches are cooperative efforts representing nearly 40 large denominations,
and national denominational agencies represent tens of millions of members
of local congregations.
Citing decades of missionary and humanitarian
work in the island nation, McCullough said the mission of the church “has
long transcended political ideologies and changes of government in Cuba,
as in other parts of the world.”
Since 2004, the U.S. administration has taken a series of actions to limit
travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans wishing to visit family members, as well
as by scientists, academic researchers, students and now national religious
The Rev. Tony Kireopoulos, an NCC executive, said
he found the meeting “quite
encouraging, in that officials from the State Department and the Treasury Department
were able to hear why churches representing millions of U.S. citizens are concerned
about these misplaced restrictions on religious practice.”
“While we may disagree with the policy itself, it is nonetheless a fact
that the current regulations negatively impact the mission of our churches,
and that is unacceptable to us. I think the officials with whom we met understood
that, but we will continue to inform our churches about these new restrictions
and advocate for them to be changed,” Kireopoulos said.
In the letters sent to Rice and Snow, McCullough and other religious leaders
raised their voices in a call for the administration to restore the general
licenses previously held by ecumenical agencies and national denominational
They insisted that the new policy impedes the ability of local congregations
to engage in mission work in Cuba through their national agencies and makes
it nearly impossible for U.S. church leaders to bring Cuban church leaders
to the United States.
Additional signatories to the letters are Bishop Frank T. Griswold, primate,
Episcopal Church; Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, Evangelical Lutheran Church
in America; the Rev. Stan Hastey, executive director, Alliance for Baptists;
the Rev. M.L. Jemison, president, Progressive National Baptist Convention;
and the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Also, the Rev. A. Roy Medley, chief executive, American Baptist Churches USA;
the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, president, Wider Church Ministries, United Church
of Christ; the Rev. Tyrone Pitts, chief executive, Progressive National Baptist
Convention; and the Rev. David A. Vargas, president, Division of Overseas Ministries,
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Besides McCullough, Domingues, McKie and Kireopoulos, members of the religious
delegation included Martin Shupack and the Rev. Richard Williams, Church World
Service; the Rev. Raquel Rodriguez, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;
the Rev. Tricia Lloyd-Sidle, Presbyterian Church USA; the Rev. Stan Hastey,
Alliance of Baptists; the Rev. Felix Ortiz-Cotto, United Church of Christ and
Disciples of Christ; the Rev. Earl Trent Jr., Progressive National Baptist
Convention; and resource people from the Washington-based Latin America Working
*Crosson is part of the communications staff for Church World Service. UMNS
contributed to this story.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.