U.S., Cuban church leaders seek normalized relations

December 5, 2011

Church leaders from ecumenical councils in the U.S. and Cuba wrapped
up a five-day meeting in Havana on December 2 with a call for
"normalized relations" between the two countries. A joint statement said
that the long U.S. embargo against Cuba and "a half century of
animosity between our countries" must end.

The 16-member National
Council of Churches delegation and leaders of the Council of Churches of
Cuba noted that their meeting grew out of strengthened ties formed when
Cuban church representatives took part in the NCC's 2010 General
Assembly.

The church leaders thanked the Obama administration for
lifting some restrictions on travel to Cuba last January but called for
the "speedy and complete fulfillment" of the president's public
intention "to review and revise long-standing U.S. policy toward Cuba."

Michael
Kinnamon, the outgoing NCC general secretary, said in a sermon November
27 at the National Episcopal Cathedral that besides the blockade, two
other issues hang over Cuban-U.S. relations. One is the U.S.
imprisonment in 1998 of the Cuban Five, five Cuban intelligence
officers, which some U.S. churches and Amnesty International have
condemned.

The other issue is the Cuban incarceration nearly two
years ago of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who brought restricted
communications equipment into the island country to aid Internet access
for a small Jewish community. Kinnamon visited Gross in jail before he
and others in the NCC delegation met with Cuban Presi­dent Raul Castro.

Kinnamon
said he and Castro discussed possible "small steps" to be taken, such
as cooperation on drug and human trafficking in the Caribbean and
im­proved air traffic control with updated equipment.  The chances for
such cooperation "are complicated in an election year," he said at a
packed press conference in Havana, "but I am a person of faith so I
always live in hope."

Cuba will have another religious visitor in
March. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed on December 12 that he will travel
to Cuba and Mexico next year. Press reports said the two-country visit
will begin March 23.

Benedict said he hoped his trip would
contribute to the construction of a society "rooted in the development
of the common good, the triumph of love and the spread of justice."

After
a historic visit by the late Pope John Paul II in 1998, relations
between the Vatican and Cuba have improved in recent years. In 2011,
church officials helped secure the release of 115 political prisoners
who left Cuba to go into exile in Spain.

The Vatican ambassador to
Cuba, Giovanni Angelo Becciu, a key figure in Vatican dialogue with the
Castro regime, was promoted last May to the no. 2 position in the
Vatican's secretariat of state.  —RNS, other sources