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Church World Service Urges U.S. Release of Cuban 5 Detainees

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Pictured (from left to right): Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore, Sr., PNBC; Rev. John L. McCullough, CWS; Antonio Guerrero, Cuban 5; Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer, Florida Council of Churches Photo: CWS

WASHINGTON, Oct. 30, 2014–Recently returned from a visit with one of three Cubans held in American prisons, Church World Service (CWS) President and CEO the Rev. John L. McCullough reflected on the intersection of faith and politics as he prepares to travel to Cuba for visits with church leaders, Cuban government officials and the families of the imprisoned men.

Other members of the delegation visiting Antonio Guerrero at the federal prison in Marianna, Florida on Oct. 13 were Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore, Sr., 19th president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches. Guerrero is one of the “Cuban 5” detainees still being held in American prisons. McCullough described the visit with Guerrero as “positive.”

“At our visit he certainly was energized and enthusiastic, but he was very realistic about the fact that it would be 2017 when he would be freed and allowed to return to Cuba and his family. He really has settled in on that psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.”

Guerrero is one of five men—the Cuban 5– arrested in 1998 in Florida and subsequently convicted and sentenced in procedures that have been widely criticized as unjust on espionage conspiracy charges. Visits with the two remaining Cuban 5 detainees, Ramon Labañino and Gerardo Hernandez, will be rescheduled.

Although CWS has long urged the U.S. government to lift the decades-old embargo on Cuba and to normalize relations with the island nation, the visit with Guerrero, McCullough said, was pastoral rather than political.

“There is a faith imperative here that really drives us to this mission,” McCullough said. “This is not a political initiative. We are happy to let the politicians do what politicians do, but we also want politicians to understand that as faith leaders, we are going to do what faith leaders do.”

That, McCullough emphasized, means responding to the mandate of faith “that speaks to the importance of justice and speaks to the reality of people who are held in bondage and the importance of setting free those who are unfairly imprisoned.”

Last year, McCullough joined other U.S. faith leaders in praising President Obama for a 2011 directive that lifted restrictions for religious and academic travel to Cuba, in addition to unrestricted travel by Cuban Americans. That move, faith leaders said, strengthened relationships with church partners in Cuba and paralleled what they described as “a time of robust growth for Cuban churches.”

With an eye toward taking advantage of the “window of opportunity” for forward movement in efforts to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba presented by the final two years of the Obama administration, McCullough said advocacy on all fronts will continue.  However, as head of a humanitarian agency he gives equal weight to the political and the pastoral.

“We are a humanitarian and relief organization and while CWS is taking a lead in what actually is a broad interfaith advocacy effort around normalizing relations, we lead with our faith. It is about relating to people on the strength of our faith, our values and the things that we hold to be true. Policies that relegate people to conditions of hunger and poverty are wrong.”

McCullough and the faith delegation scheduled to visit Cuba next week also are urging the release of Alan Gross, the former U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor, who has been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly five years, unjustly according to the U.S. government.

“CWS is calling for the humanitarian release of Mr. Gross by the Cuban government and of the remaining Cuban 5 prisoners by the U.S. government,” said McCullough. “This is a humanitarian imperative and an important step toward improving the relationship between our two countries.”

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