(ENI)—The departure of a U.S. Navy military base from the small Puerto Rican island of Viéques has been hailed by church leaders who have for years protested against the base's bombing range.
"The promised departure of the United States military from the Island of Vieques is an occasion for great celebration," says the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the UCC. "After more than 60 years, the land, waters, and people of this island have the promise of a new future."
Thomas was part of a 12-person UCC delegation that traveled to Vieques in March 2000 to participate in the nonviolent protest against the continued presence of U.S. Navy military operations on the island.
The U.S. Navy has promised to leave by May 1, having used the eastern third of the Caribbean island for military maneuvers since 1947.
A widespread coalition of church ministers, nuns, bishops and the general secretary of the Puerto Rican Bible Society, as well as U.S. Members of Congress, had steadfastly opposed the naval base on the 37-kilometer-long island, which has a population of about 9000.
Tens of thousands of protesters have taken part in demonstrations against the base, and about 1,500 have been arrested in the past four years. Protesters often occupied the bombing beaches until U.S. marshals and troops dragged them off.
On one occasion, an ecumenical chapel was built on the bombing range, only to be torn down when military forces retook the area.
The navy, which is moving its maneuvers to Florida and other areas on the U.S. mainland, has said it will turn the Viéques base over to the U.S. Department of the Interior for use as a wildlife refuge.