U.S. Christian leaders, including two UCC executives, pressed the Bush administration and Congress on June 7 to end current restrictive bans on travel to Cuba, calling on the House and Senate to support related bipartisan legislation now in both houses.
In a statement issued today to Senate and House members, executives of Church World Service, the National Council of Churches, and 11 of the largest mainline U.S. Christian denominations -- including the UCC -- urged lawmakers to co-sponsor and support the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2007 (S721) and the Export Freedom to Cuba Act of 2007 (HR 654).
UCC signers included General Minister and President John H. Thomas and Wider Church Ministries Executive Cally Rogers-Witte.
On June 14, church-based policy advocates will meet with House and Senate members and staff to further press for passage of the bills, which would end travel restrictions by all U.S. citizens to the island nation.
The faith coalition’s statement today emphasizes that any Cuba travel legislation enacted by the 110th Congress should be broad enough to end the restrictions on religious travel by national, regional and local church bodies and ecumenical and interfaith organizations.
The statement protested current U.S. policy, saying, "National and regional denominational bodies and religious organizations are now eligible only for very restricted licenses." For the past two years a new Treasury Department policy interpretation has limited these kinds of religious organizations to one trip per quarter and the number of travelers in any delegation is restricted.
Citing a long, shared history of relationship, interaction with and support of Cuban church partners, the American faith leaders say the recent re-interpretations of U.S. travel regulations and the resulting limitations "are unfair and inappropriate, restrain religious freedom and reflect undue governmental interference in the exercise of religion."
John McCullough, Executive Director and CEO of Church World Service, of which the UCC is a member, says, "It’s a policy that has substantially restricted our ability to work with our ecumenical partners in Cuba on matters of spiritual and communal support."
McCullough also said the restrictions "have inconsistently limited religious travel by the broader church organizations, while readily approving more frequent visits by individual church congregations."
By comparison, in the previous two years before the new restrictions were enacted, the National Council of Churches, which represents 45 million American Christians, took 33 delegations to Cuba. If the NCC applied for the available license now, it would be limited to four trips per year.
Last year 17 Senators and 105 members of the House of Representatives wrote letters to then-Treasury Secretary John Snow expressing concern about the new restrictions on religious travel. The religious leaders say today Congress now has the opportunity to remove them.
McCullough says the restrictions on religious travel to Cuba are reflective of the broader policy "that also chokes off other vital forms of travel to Cuba, including restricted family visits, educational, academic visits and cultural exchanges.
"After more than half a century, the isolationist policy toward Cuba by successive U.S. administrations has completely failed to accomplish its intentions," he said, "and flies in the face of important American values including the right to travel, academic and religious freedoms, and protection of family relationships."
Signers of today’s ecumenical statement include: the Rev. John L. McCullough, Executive Director and CEO, Church World Service; the Rev. Robert W. Edgar General Secretary, National Council of Churches USA; the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Rev. Stan Hastey, Executive Director, Alliance of Baptists; the Rev. Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (USA); the Rev. A. Roy Medley, General Secretary, American Baptist Churches USA; the Rev. Stanley Noffsinger, General Secretary, Church of the Brethren General Board; the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, Executive for Wider Church Ministries, United Church of Christ; The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church; the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ; the Rev. David A. Vargas, President, Division of Overseas Ministries, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); and the Rev. James E. Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church.