Washington Post | ADELLE M. BANKS
More than 100 members of Congress have signed a letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow questioning changes in his department’s rules that have halted the ability of some religious organizations to travel to Cuba.
“We understand the complicated political reality that exists between the United States and Cuban governments,” reads the March 3 letter spearheaded by Reps. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Barbara Lee (D) of California.
“However, we believe it is inappropriate and unacceptable for politics and government to serve as a hurdle and now as a barrier to faith-based connections between individuals. If anything, these connections foster greater religious freedom in Cuba and contribute to a severely-lacking free-flowing exchange of ideas between the two countries,” the letter states.
The concerns addressed in the three-page letter with 105 signatories are also scheduled to be the subject of a Capitol Hill meeting March 15 among politicians, administration officials and religious leaders. Affected groups include the National Council of Churches, the American Baptist Churches USA and the Alliance of Baptists—which no longer have licenses—and organizations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) whose Cuban travel has new restrictions. Some of these groups have traveled to Cuba for more than a decade to meet with partner churches and attend conferences in the communist island nation.
The letter’s signatories and religious leaders say they are perplexed by actions of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which has given individual congregations less restrictive licenses than the ones national religious organizations have had.
“The issue of individual congregations still being able to get general licenses is particularly dismaying because, for many denominations, the individual church is not a separate legal entity and it’s viewed as the local level of the national church,” said Martin Shupack, associate director for public policy in the Washington office of Church World Service, which now has a more restricted license.
“That seems to be making decisions ... on religious matters that’s beyond the competence of the government.”
The growing reaction to regulation changes comes after the policy was modified in September 2004 and some religious organizations were issued warnings about it in March 2005. Since then, some mainstream religious organizations have found that their requests to the Office of Foreign Assets Control for license renewal were denied.
“OFAC previously issued religious organizations broad licenses that allowed them to select who they wanted to travel and placed no restriction on the number of travelers,” said Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise.
“However, OFAC became aware that a number of large organizations were abusing their religious travel licenses by soliciting participation beyond their own organizations for trips to Cuba, yielding less control of the travel groups and their activities in Cuba.”
She added that some congregations are permitted to have a broader license, “where leaders of the groups are more likely to know the individuals personally and are able to more closely monitor the specific program of religious activities in Cuba.”
Millerwise declined to comment on individual licenses.
The Rev. Stan Hastey, executive director of the Washington-based Alliance of Baptists, said he received a warning letter last year and sent documentation about some 300 travelers who went on more than 20 trips to Cuba over an 18-month period. He learned in June that his organization’s license was suspended because one group’s itinerary “did not demonstrate a program of full-time religious activities.”
Hastey said that trip, which he took, included an overnight stay at a beach resort that has ties to a religious group.
“The purpose of the overnight there was to visit a church, not to go to the beach,” he said.
He now cannot travel to Cuba unless his own Washington congregation applies for a license, which it has not yet done.
Some religious leaders say their contact with Cubans has been reduced from regular trips to e-mail correspondence.
“We no longer have personal contact with our global partners in Cuba and we can no longer participate in missions trips between the two denominations and our partners in Cuba,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Carrasquillo, program associate for the Indianapolis-based Latin America and Caribbean office of Global Ministries, the mission arm for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.
Other religious groups are finding their travel is more restricted than it was in the past.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) used to have a two-year license that did not specify the number of trips that could be taken.
“Now, it’s a one-year license,” said the Rev. Tricia Lloyd-Sidle, regional liaison for the Caribbean for the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination. “It’s limited to four trips during the year, one per calendar quarter.”
Lee, one of the members of Congress who sought signatories for the letter to Snow, recently questioned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the licensing issue, Rice said she did not know about “specific cases of licensing” and would look into it.
“I will say that I don’t think that there is anything that passes for religious freedom in Cuba,” Rice added during a mid-February appearance before the House International Relations Committee. “And so the notion that somehow our churches going there are contributing to religious freedom in a place where religious freedom is so clearly denied, I think I would question the premise.”
In addition to the planned meeting for March 15, some leaders of mainline Protestant denominations intend to discuss the issue during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days. It will be held in Washington a few days before March 15, by advocates and theologians concerned about foreign policy.
Cindy Buhl, legislative director in McGovern’s office, said the license denials for churches is part of a pattern of new restrictions on Cuban travel that have been put in place by the Bush administration, affecting educational exchanges and visits between Cuban-Americans and their families in Cuba.
“Now they’re hitting the churches,” she said.
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THIS JUST IN FROM LAWG.ORG
Dear Cuba Policy Advocates:
This short note is to thank you and to inform you about the results of your calls and emails to Congress in support of unrestricted religious travel to Cuba. While the LAWG supports the right of all U.S. citizens to travel freely to Cuba, this particular action focused on the right of U.S. churches to maintain contact with their faith partners in Cuba.
Both the Senate and the House sign-on letters and the signatories (105 in the House, 17 in the Senate) to the Department of the Treasury may be viewed on our website at http://www.lawg.org, along with an article that appeared in the Washington Post.
As a follow-up to these letters, Members of Congress Jim McGovern (D-MA), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Barbara Lee (D-CA) and others, along with a dozen key leaders from mainline churches, will meet officials from OFAC and the State Department Wednesday, March 15th to demand reinstatement of national church denominations’ general licenses to travel to Cuba. We will send you an update later this week with a report on that meeting.
Thanks again for helping to make this happen.
Latin America Working Group