Cuba thwarts visit by religious liberty panel

WASHINGTON — A scheduled visit to Cuba during which a U.S. panel planned to discuss religious freedom with faith communities and government officials was canceled when the delegation's visas were withheld by the Cuban government.

Commissioners and staff of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) were planning to visit the communist country April 14-16. The Cuban government provided no explanation for its refusal to issue visas April 13 and offered no other dates for a possible visit, according to USCIRF. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was one of the commissioners scheduled to go on the trip.

Since 2004, USCIRF has listed Cuba as one of the countries on its "watch list," which consists of countries with limited religious liberties that are capable of deteriorating into extreme conditions. Countries on the "watch list," USCIRF says, require close monitoring for violations of religious freedom.

"The commission has received reports that there are improvements in some sectors in Cuba. As with other countries, we seek to ascertain how much and where. If everything is so normal in Cuba, then the Cuban government should welcome a USCIRF visit. Not allowing USCIRF's bipartisan delegation to visit is a very disturbing sign," USCIRF chair Felice Gaer said in a written statement.

Cuba's government strictly controls religious practice on the Caribbean island, according to the commission. The regime interferes with both registered and unregistered religious bodies, USCIRF has reported.

Cuba would not have been the first country with a poor religious liberty record to be the destination of a USCIRF fact-gathering trip. Similar trips have been made by commission representatives to such countries as China, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, Gaer said.

The commission has been concerned about some occurrences that have affected Cuba's religious freedom conditions, including the following:

• Government refusal to grant permission for the construction of any new places of worship.

• Churches and other religious groups being required to register and be approved based on how closely they agree with the government's policies.

• Crackdowns on the freedom of speech, assembly and association.

• House church meetings that are broken up and those in attendance sometimes imprisoned.

• Attacks on religious leaders and threats made toward their family members.

• Prohibition of private religious schools and denial of religious organizations' right to access the Internet.

USCIRF will continue to monitor Cuba. In order to observe the level of religious intolerance, the commission plans to resubmit visa applications to Cuba.

President Obama lifted April 13 some of the restrictions on travel to Cuba in order to seek closer relations with the country, according to The Washington Post. It is anticipated this will open up the communist island to more services and eliminate the trade embargo and travel ban on Cuba.

Governments on the commission's "watch list" do not rise to the level of "countries of particular concern" (CPC) in USCIRF's estimation. CPC designation, which is recommended by USCIRF but made only by the secretary of state, is reserved for governments that have "engaged in or tolerated systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom."

The CPC list as designated by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice consists of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

USCIRF is a bipartisan panel that directs the Department of State's attention to countries that violate religious freedom and other human rights. The commission makes reports to the Department of State and Congress on conditions in specific countries and recommends actions to be taken.

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