Church leaders the world over have objected to a misleading reference to the Cuban Council of Churches that appeared in the July 10 report from the President Bush’s “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.”

The report states that to “tighten regulations for the export of humanitarian items,” Washington plans to “ensure that exports are consigned to entities that support independent civil society and are not regime administered or controlled organizations, such as the Cuban Council of Churches.”

The Cuban Council of Churches has been coordinating church-based humanitarian aid in Cuba for 71 years. The Rev. Lucius Walker, director of the U.S. organization Pastors for Peace, told the World that the council is the oldest such group in Latin America and the most inclusive in the Western Hemisphere.

Council President Rhode González Zorilla, a pastor of the Christian Pentecostal Church and the first woman to hold the job, ascribed allegations of government control “to a deliberate disregard of the history of the work of Cuban churches and of the council itself.” She pointed out that “relations between the churches of Cuba and the United States are historical. Nothing will be able to keep us apart as churches.” Past council President Pablo Oden Marichel, an Episcopalian priest, accused the U.S. government of preparing to “kill the ecumenical movement in Cuba, one of the strongest in Latin America.”

The Cuban Council of Churches presently includes 23 Protestant and evangelical denominations plus three churches in observer roles, six “fraternally associated” groups (including Cuba’s Jewish community), and 12 other Christian and ecumenical formations viewed as “collaborators.”

The Rev. Samuel Kobia, secretary-general of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, characterized U.S. policies as “ a flagrant violation of religious liberty and an obvious interference in religious affairs.” He called upon the councils of churches of all nations to express solidarity with the Cuban council. Marti Shupack of the World Council added, “to disturb this activity — cooperation with Cuban churches — strikes at the heart of our religious identity. Religious liberty was a fundamental principle for the founders of the American republic.”

Church World Service (CWS) is the service arm of the U.S. National Council of Churches, representing 35 U.S. denominations. Executive Director Johan L. McCullough also characterized interference with his organization’s ability to provide basic humanitarian aid as an assault on religious liberty. He recalled that CWS has maintained relations with Cuban churches for 40 years and concluded, “We have no doubt that the Cuban Council of Churches is an authentic expression of Christianity.”

The council provides support and humanitarian aid to the elderly, the disabled, and victims of natural disasters. It also promotes community gardens and the use of renewable energy sources. Cuban church leaders say that help from U.S. religious groups has been crucial to this work.

Walker said Pastors for Peace has sent 3,000 tons of humanitarian aid to Cuba’s Ecumenical Distribution Committee. He suggested that in its report, the Bush administration is indirectly attacking his own organization for its assistance to the Cuban people.

Walker said he finds it contradictory that the U.S. government, after denying the existence of church life in revolutionary Cuba for many years, now acknowledges its reality through repression. Bush’s “inserting his own political hostility into Cuba’s religious affairs” may serve to solidify ties between the government there and Cuban churches, he said.