CWS Partner Alliance of Baptists Challenges Government Allegation of Violations of U.S. Cuba Policy
WASHINGTON, DC--Sept. 7--Calling its action "a necessary public witness," the Alliance of Baptists, a Church World Service member denomination, has challenged a U.S. government allegation that the denomination violated the terms of its license to travel to Cuba for religious work. The alleged violation could result in a $34,000 penalty for the small denomination.
The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) charged, in a July 5 letter to Alliance of Baptists Executive Director Stan Hastey, that five churches traveling on an Alliance license "provided itineraries that did not reflect a program of full-time religious activity."
Legal counsel for the Alliance filed a written response with OFAC on August 31. The denomination is represented by Kenneth A. Lazarus of Lazarus and Associates in Washington, D.C.
In explaining the Alliance's decision to fight the charge, Hastey called the government allegations "a political ploy to satisfy anti-Castro Cuban Americans," and declared, "It is important that the first national religious body cited for violations of policy respond publicly rather than settle quietly."
The regulations, which state, "It is a condition of this license that the activities undertaken in Cuba constitute a full-time program of religious activities," are vague enough to be interpreted in any fashion the administration chooses.
"Who gives the U.S. Treasury Department license to determine which activities are spiritual? The church delegations were there at the invitation of congregations that were hosting them and helping to determine their activities on the ground," Hastey said.
The travel license for the Alliance of Baptists was suspended in June 2005 as a result of the charges.
The Alliance, with a membership of 60,000 people, has been a vocal critic of this administration's policy toward Cuba. The denomination often has joined Church World Service and other mainstream religious organizations, including the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and major U.S. Protestant denominations, in protesting administration actions and policies that threaten religious freedom in the United States.
In recent months, the administration has decided to bar churches from supplying humanitarian aid, except for food and medicine, to the people of Cuba through the Cuban Council of Churches. A July Department of State report said aid should be "consigned to entities that support independent civil society and are not regime administered or controlled organizations, such as the Cuban Council of Churches."
The Cuban Council of Churches is the ecumenical organization recognized by churches throughout the island nation and the world, and as such, has been the long-time mission partner of mainstream religious bodies in the United States.
The administration's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which recently published new recommendations for U.S. policy toward Cuba, claims that its recommendations are designed to promote democracy in post-Castro Cuba.
The administration also has stopped issuing less restricted travel licenses to national church bodies and denominations for religious work in Cuba. Instead, the U.S. State Department is offering these religious organizations the possibility of applying for restricted one-year licenses that limit visits to just four per year and that require, at the time of application, the name of each person who will travel under the license during that year.
Religious organizations, including Church World Service, have expressed outrage, saying the restricted licenses severely limit their ability to carry out their historic religious mission with the people of the impoverished nation and to maintain fraternal relationships with partner churches there. They have appealed to the administration to rescind the policy.
This policy change came in the wake of other administration decisions to limit to only once every three years travel to visit family members in Cuba by Cuban Americans in the United States, and to, in effect, ban educational and cultural exchanges.
Local congregations may still apply for unrestricted licenses for religious travel, but the vast majority of local congregations channel such mission work through their national denominational or ecumenical agencies rather than undertaking it themselves.
The threat of a $34,000 penalty--and the legal costs of challenging it--is significant to a small religious body like the Alliance. More significant, though, according to Dr. Hastey, is the moral imperative to resist heavy-handed government violations of religious freedom; to resist the administration's political pandering to anti-Castro Cubans living in the United States, and to protest the administration's abusive and inhumane policy toward Cuba.
"This is a necessary public witness for the Alliance to make in response to unreasonable allegations," says Hastey of the decision to fight the penalty--even in the face of administration attempts to intimidate the Alliance of Baptists.
Challenging the penalty for alleged violations of the Alliance's license to travel to Cuba, he adds, is small "compared to the human tragedy of Cubans in this country who have come here to find refuge and who cannot even go home to visit a dying relative because of an inhumane administratio n policy that is a travesty."
Church World Service is a relief, development, and refugee assistance agency supported by 35 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox denominations in the United States.
Lesley Crosson, (212) 870-2676, firstname.lastname@example.org Jan Dragin - 24/7 - (781) 925-1526, email@example.com