The Religious Left has finally spoken out against the "violation of religious freedom" in Cuba.
No, these church officials were not condemning Fidel Castro's 47-year war on religion. Instead, they were condemning U.S. regulations on religious groups traveling between Cuba and the United States.
In late May, officials of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and its $60 million relief arm, Church World Service (CWS), convened a press conference in Washington, D.C., to denounce U.S. travel restrictions on Cuba.
Every year, thousands of American churchgoers raise several million dollars for CWS through its anti-hunger "CROP Walks" across the nation.
In addition to more traditional relief activities, CWS supports an ambitious political "advocacy" program. CWS has lobbied against free trade, the Iraq war, restrictions on aid to the Hamas regime, and increased penalties for illegal immigration into the U.S.
At the NCC/CWS press conference, the NCC's Brenda Girton-Mitchell and Martin Shupack of CWS were particularly incensed about new, tighter regulations on fraternal exchanges between mainline denominational agencies and the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC).
The CCC, like many official church groups trying to survive under totalitarian regimes, avoids criticism of Castro's government. In 2000, the CCC joined with the NCC to urge the return of little Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, with the NCC funding the related legal expenses.
Also present at the press conference were representatives from the left-leaning Latin American Working Group and Washington Office of Latin America, both of which have long opposed the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Through the 1980s, these groups were supportive of Marxist guerrilla movements in Latin America. Over the years, both have enjoyed financial and institutional support from mainline and other church agencies, including the NCC and CWS.
With few exceptions these groups have long ignored religious persecution and other human rights violations in Cuba. NCC and CWS are disturbed by U.S. restrictions on their own travel to Cuba and on the travel of a few officials from the Cuban Council of Churches into the United States. (Girton-Mitchell noted that the State Department considers the latter "agents of the Cuban government," a charge she disputed.) According to Girton-Mitchell, such intereference in the relationship between the Cuban Council of Churches and U.S. mainline agencies amounts to "a gross violation of religious freedom and a remarkably aggressive interference in religious matters for which the U.S. government has neither the right nor the competence." In a distributed statement, CWS official Rick Augsburger charged that these U.S. policies "strike at the heart of our religious identity and freedom." But the mainline officials are unconcerned that few grassroots Cubans have the freedom to leave their country. Nor do the NCC and CWS appear concerned that Cuban churches are frequently subjected to monitoring, infiltration, harassment, and stifling regulation from the communist authorities.
Last fall, the Castro regime decreed that burgeoning house churches must register with the government and submit to onerous regulations or shut down. Even churches who seek to comply with the rules run the risk of their application for registration being denied.
But aside from passing mention of wanting "reform and the opening of society" in Cuba, none of the speakers at the NCC/CWS press conference directly acknowledged any restriction of freedom, religious or otherwise, by the Cuban government.
The mainline church record on Cuba is a sorry one. In 1983, renowned Cuban Catholic poet Armando Valladares, who had languished for two decades as a political prisoner, described the impact of church apologists for Castro by mainline denominational officials in the U.S. He testified that "[e]very time that a pamphlet was published in the United States, every time a clergyman would write an article in support of Fidel Castro's dictatorship, a translation would reach us and that was worse for the Christian political prisoners than the beatings or the hunger." With extreme sadness, Valladares recalled how "[w]hile we waited for the solidarity embrace from our brothers in Christ, incomprehensively to us, those who were embraced [by our U.S. co-religionists] were our tormentors."
Little appears to have changed. Many Religious Left officials still perform PR work for the Castro regime. Last year, the the New York-based United Methodist Women's Division endorsed Castro's book, War, Racism, and Economic Injustice: The Global Ravages of Capitalism. Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church traveled to Cuba in February, forcefully denouncing the "inhuman" policy of the United States towards Cuba. On a trip to Havana in April, Rick Ufford-Chase, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), strongly defended the communist government's record on religious freedom.
In their countless political pronouncements, officials from the NCC, CWS, and their their affiliated mainline Protestant denominations very rarely, if ever, seek to respectfully take into account the informed consciences of the majority of the grassroots church members whose offering plate money they rely on and whom they purport to represent. So it should not be surprising that they would show a similar disregard for the concerns of their oppressed fellow Christians in Cuba.
Revealingly, the NCC/CWS press conference was sparsely attended. Informed journalists understand that the NCC and CWS, when they speak politically, represent very few within their own claimed constituencies.
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