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Did Baptists Help Sheehan Get Into Cuba?

Did Cindy Sheehan and her Code Pink partners make their trip to Cuba under the cover of religion?

It’s seem very likely that Cindy Sheehan and Code Pink are using a "religious license" supplied by the Alliance of Baptists to travel to Cuba illegally.

American activists, from left, Cindy Sheehan, Tiffany Burns, Adele Welty and Ann Wright attend a mass at the Ebenezer Baptist church in Havana, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2007.

The Alliance of Baptists have been using their religious license to sponsor at least 15 trips to Cuba, thereby circumventing US law which prohibits travel there by US citizens.

From the Savannah Morning News:

Baptist group accused of violating Cuba embargo

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Dana Clark Felty

A former affiliate of The Alliance of Baptists, the First Baptist Church of Savannah is among five churches questioned regarding mission trips to Cuba.

U.S. Treasury officials have threatened a national Baptist organization with a $34,000 fine, citing the First Baptist Church of Savannah and four other churches for participating in banned tourist activities during mission trips in Cuba.

Leaders of The Alliance of Baptists said the Birmingham, Ala., group plans to appeal the fine, which would constitute about 10 percent of its budget for operating expenses.

The Rev. John Finley, senior minister at First Baptist Church of Savannah, said church leaders don’t know what they did to draw the criticism of the federal government.

Since 1995, the church has sponsored 15 trips to sister congregations in Havana and Sancti Spiritus.

"From our point of view, all of our mission trips to Cuba have been in full compliance with the regulations," Finley said. "We’re … providing to the Treasury Department proof of that."

A July 5 Treasury letter notified leaders of The Alliance of Baptists of the fine and mentioned five affiliate churches guilty of violations through 2003 and 2005. Other churches mentioned in the letter are the Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, Ala.; Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.; and the First Baptist churches in Greenville, S.C. and in Washington.

The five churches were issued blanket permission to travel to Cuba through a license obtained by the Alliance of Baptists.

The letter claims the churches "provided itineraries that did not reflect a program of full-time religious activity" while in Cuba.

During a March 2005 trip, a church member from Baptist Church of the Covenant purchased Cuban cigars that were confiscated by U.S. Customs. Associate Pastor John Duke said that prompted extra scrutiny of the itinerary.

"It was our very first trip. We didn’t know," said the Rev. Sarah Jackson Shelton, pastor of the Birmingham church. "Part of that was to help the economy. It was all done in conjunction with the pastor of the Cuban church and director of the Baptist convention in Cuba."

Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise declined to comment, saying the department does not discuss individual cases.

But she said churches are permitted to conduct religious trips to Cuba if they receive a license from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), she said.

"Lying on beaches or visiting well-known tourist sites run by the Cuban government would undermine the point of the sanction, which is to starve the Castro regime of hard currency," Millerwise said. "One of the biggest boons for the Castro regime is the tourism industry."

To Finley, the issue is bigger than cigars. U.S. policies create confusion within churches because they do not define "a full-time program of religious activities," he said.

"We assume that means you don’t have to be in church 24 hours a day, but that you can do other things (as long as) your larger purpose is mission-related."

The church has sponsored 15 trips, each including up to 15 members, to visit sister congregations in Cuba. Savannah Baptists usually stay in "a moderately priced Havana hotel" because Cuban church members are too poor to host them, Finley said.

Trips have included Savannah members visiting the homes of Cuban Baptists who led walking tours of downtown Havana.

"If we had guests to come to Savannah, we would show them Savannah with great pride in our city and our culture," Finley said. "Cuban Baptists wanted to do the same thing."

About two years ago, the Savannah Baptists visited a tourist site to distribute Christian literature written in Spanish, Finley said.

Stan Hastey, executive director of The Alliance of Baptists, said he believes the Bush administration singled out the alliance because of its opposition to the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.

The Alliance of Baptists is one of a number of semi-denominations formed about 15 years ago after liberal and moderate Baptists left the Southern Baptist Convention.

Last October, the First Baptist Church of Savannah left the Alliance of Baptist churches, citing policy differences. The church is now affiliated solely with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

In March, the church received its own license, effective through 2008, to travel to Cuba.

"That seems to suggest that the issue has more to do with the Alliance than with the First Baptist Church of Savannah," Finley said.

"We assume we’re still in their good graces."

Code Pink’s flipside, Global Exchange, had previously run trips to Cuba for ten years. However, their most recent tours have been cancelled after "cease and desist" letters from the US Treasury.

Here is the announcement of Code Pink’s plans to visit Castro’s paradise last New Year’s:

Join CODEPINK for New Year’s in Cuba December 27-January 2, 2006

Cuba is one of the most beautiful and fascinating countries on Earth—and George Bush says you can’t go there. Well, we’re going anyway, and we invite you to join us!

This New Year’s CODEPINK will be organizing a large group of fun-loving and freedom-loving Americans to break George Bush’s ban on travel to Cuba. Join co-founders Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans, together with Academy Award winning producer Paul Haggis, as we visit with farmers at their co-ops, doctors at their family clinics, dancers at the National Folklore Group, and young people at the ballpark. Don’t miss this historic chance to dance salsa, drink mojitos, and visit beautiful beaches—all while defending our constitutional rights!!!

The federal restrictions barring travel to Cuba are not only counterproductive and outmoded in this post-Cold War context, but also a violation of our constitutional freedom to travel. The Bush administration says we can only travel to Cuba if we have immediate family there. Well, we do. Cubans ARE family—Somos Familia. And while we’re there, we’ll be holding a mutual adoption ceremony in order to demonstrate that family transcends political boundaries. In the ceremony, each participant will be paired with a Cuban brother or sister. After all, we are all part of one human family and there should be no artificial barriers dividing us. This historic opportunity to visit Cuba will cost approximately $1,500 (to Cancun) or $1,800 (to Mexico City). Participants will fly out of three points of entry: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. We will all meet in Mexico City, where we will then take a chartered flight to Havana. Our trip this New Years will truly be a family affair. Feel free to bring children, parents, partners, neighbors, and friends. It is a trip designed for all ages, interests, and backgrounds (family rates available).

After seven action-packed days on this wonderful island, we will re-enter the United States through these same three points of entry. This re-entry will be a powerful challenge to Bush’s restrictive policies that deny us our fundamental liberty to travel where we please. Though past high-profile “travel challenge” groups have experienced no adverse legal consequences to date, we will have our lawyers ready at each airport of entry to provide legal aid, if necessary.

Because we will be traveling to Cuba without government permission (i.e. a license from the US treasury), CODEPINK participants will be breaking the embargo and therefore subject to civil penalties. (For further questions on the legal implications of unauthorized travel to Cuba, check out www.nlg.org/cuba). With these risks in mind, your participation in our trip is a crucial protest in the growing movement to end the travel ban.

We expect a huge response to this trip, so get your applications in early. Also year–end travel gets booked up VERY early (especially the return flights after New Years), so make your plans early! We look forward to spending some marvelous days together, while pushing to overturn a policy that keeps us from building bonds of friendship with our neighbors.

If you are interested in participating in this trip, please contact Dana (at) codepinkalert.org. You can also reach Dana by calling the CODEPINK office at (310) 827-4320.

Alas, this trip hit a snag:

Dear Friends,

We have some bad news to relay about the Cuba trip. We knew that this trip was a challenge to the Bush administration’s restrictions on travel to the island.

However, we had anticipated that, as in the past, the government would either let us come and go without incident, or would send us a letter after we returned. Instead, we—CODEPINK, Global Exchange, and some of the participants—have already received ominous letters from the Treasury Department, calling on us to “cease and desist” our plans for the trip, demanding the names of all the people who had signed up, and threatening us with a million dollar fine and ten years in jail.

When some individual participants received these letters, they canceled their plans—leaving us without the “safety in numbers.” And while our organizations are willing to fight the government on this (Global Exchange has been fighting the travel restrictions for 15 years!), we feel that right we are too overloaded with other efforts, such as stopping the war in Iraq, to take on a prolonged legal battle right now.

In the interim, however, Code Pink/Global Exchange hit upon a new tactic.

From their website:

Is it Legal to Travel to Cuba?

Global Exchange is a licensed Travel Service Provider by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Treasury Department. Global Exchange facilitates legal travel to Cuba for groups with their own specific license, for individuals who fall under the general licensing categories of OFAC and for individuals traveling under a humanitarian/religious license.

And as it turns out Cindy Sheehan and her party were met at the airport by none other than the (former) Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, who is also a member of Cuba’s parliament.

American activist Cindy Sheehan makes the victory signal as she walks up stairs along with, from right to left, Cuban Baptist minister Raul Suarez, Medea Benjamin, Tiffany Burns, Adele Welty and Ann Wright after they arrived at the Jose Marti airport in Havana, Saturday, Jan 6, 2007.

More importantly, Mr. Suarez is also an important member of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba.

From an Alliance Of Baptists December 2006 newsletter (pdf):

Also reflecting on the makeup of the conference participants, Martin Luther King Center founder and director Raúl Suárez, another member of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba, noted that nearly half of those present were under the age of 40. Suárez, at age 72 the eldest participant, is the retired pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana and is also an elected member of Cuba’s national parliament.

The Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba has long and deep ties to the Alliance of Baptists.

From the Alliance Of Baptists’ own website:

Cuba Partnerships – Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba

Since 1991 the Alliance of Baptists has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with the Fraternidad de Iglesias Bautistas de Cuba [Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba]. Our respective journeys have been remarkably similar…

Both bodies began with an intensive study of the Bible, Baptist history and the socio-theological context of their respective situations. And both came to the conclusion that the context demanded restatements of basic Baptist values and new expressions of those principles. Soon enough representatives of the Alliance and the Fraternidad began to find each other…

At the institutional level, the partnership between the Fraternidad and the Alliance began to take shape in 1990 when Rodés invited Alliance Acting Executive Director Alan Neely to organize a visit to Cuba by a group of Alliance pastors

Given the startling similarities in our origins and historical-theological perspectives, it is little wonder that the Fraternidad and the Alliance came to see themselves as spiritual twins or that this kinship would result in a joint project of fostering sister-church relationships. Indeed the tie between these two bodies of Baptists has become a model of what productive 21st century mission partnerships will be like.

Indeed, the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba is called "the Cuban arm of the Alliance of Baptists."

So seems highly probably that Cindy Sheehan and Code Pink are using a religious license supplied by the Alliance of Baptists to travel to Cuba illegally.

Which would explain why they were met at the airport by Mr. Suarez. And why they made a bee-line to his Baptist church for their first stop in Havana.

Hopefully the US government will be made aware of how Mother Sheehan and her pals and the Alliance Of Baptists are breaking the law.

This article was posted by Steve on Sunday, January 7th, 2007. Comments are currently closed.

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