Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Religious activists and mainstream churches under government control
Your First Amendment rights to assemble, to petition the government and to freely exercise your religion apparently do not apply on foreign territory. In fact, your freedoms, including the implied freedom to travel, may be stripped away by something so simple as a few pieces of legislation.
This becomes relevant when you want to protest, say, the illegal detention and torture of inmates at Guantánamo in Cuba, as the Catholic religious group Witness Against Torture attempted last December before the gates of the prison. To exercise their rights to assemble, petition the government and freely exercise their religion they traveled to Cuba, an act which is now forbidden to ordinary American citizens. (Remember how the U.S. government used to rail about the Soviets' refusal to allow its citizens to travel to
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) delivered papers of inquiry to the group last month, presumably in preparation for prosecution. According to the group's press release, each traveler to Cuba faces a $250,000 fine and a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
The major media outlets haven't seen fit to pass this news along to the public, though UPI carried the story (undoubtedly because of their Moonie interest in all matters religious). Oddly, if you live in Australia or New Zealand, you were quite well informed about it.
If Americans weren't informed of the Guantánamo protest and its aftermath, they may be getting some information about the government's Cuba policies through their churches, which are feeling the Bush effect. Adelle Banks tells us in Monday's Washington Post that
More than 100 members of Congress have signed a letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow questioning changes in his department's rules that have halted the ability of some religious organizations to travel to Cuba.
"We understand the complicated political reality that exists between the United States and Cuban governments," reads the March 3 letter spearheaded by Reps. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Barbara Lee (D) of California.
"However, we believe it is inappropriate and unacceptable for politics and government to serve as a hurdle and now as a barrier to faith-based connections between individuals. If anything, these connections foster greater religious freedom in Cuba and contribute to a severely-lacking free-flowing exchange of ideas between the two countries," the letter states.
The concerns addressed in the three-page letter with 105 signatories are also scheduled to be the subject of a Capitol Hill meeting March 15 among politicians, administration officials and religious leaders....
The letter's signatories and religious leaders say they are perplexed by actions of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which has given individual congregations less restrictive licenses than the ones national religious organizations have had.
"That seems to be making decisions ... on religious matters that's beyond the competence of the government."
I'm sympathetic to their concern of course, but the real trick is to discover in just what area of public life this government has demonstrated competence.
The growing reaction to regulation changes comes after the policy was modified in September 2004 and some religious organizations were issued warnings about it in March 2005. Since then, some mainstream religious organizations have found that their requests to the Office of Foreign Assets Control for license renewal were denied.
"OFAC previously issued religious organizations broad licenses that allowed them to select who they wanted to travel and placed no restriction on the number of travelers," said Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise.
Of course, no story on foreign policy would be complete without some thoughts from Secretary of State Condi Rice, who is apparently practicing to be a logician when her employment runs out—
"I will say that I don't think that there is anything that passes for religious freedom in Cuba," Rice added during a mid-February appearance before the House International Relations Committee. "And so the notion that somehow our churches going there are contributing to religious freedom in a place where religious freedom is so clearly denied, I think I would question the premise."
I would question whether governments that restrict and/or forbid their own churches to travel have the right to lecture other governments about religious freedom.