Although Western mainline church officials have refused to criticize Fidel Castro for decades, some East European Christians are now speaking out.
The head of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in the Czech Republic is directly challenging the head of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches over his criticisms of America's anti-Castro policy.
"From our own experiences churches in Central and Eastern Europe are aware of what it means to live under a repressive totalitarian regime of the type, which, according to our opinion, exists in Cuba," gently chided Jitka Klubalová in her letter to World Council of Churches chief Samuel Kobia early this month. Klubalova is the general secretary of the Czech church group for Protestants. She expressed her "uneasiness" over Kobia’s stance.
Kobia had written President Bush, to condemn a proposed new U.S. policy that would decline to license humanitarian aid channelled through Cuban-government controlled groups, such as the Cuban Council of Churches. Left-wing church leaders in Europe and North America have preferred to support the Cuban Council of Churches, to the exclusion of Cuban Christians in churches unrecognized by Castro’s government. Kobia’s WCC includes 348 denominations in 100 countries with a constituency of more than 560 million Christians. But the WCC has typically been the instrument of leftist-led U.S. and West European "mainline" Protestant denominations, nearly all of which are declining.
The WCC was responding to the Second Report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which suggests that the U.S. "[t]ighten regulations for the export of humanitarian items, other than agricultural or medical commodities, 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 commission was established by President Bush as an inter-agency group to prepare for a post-Castro Cuba.
In his letter to Bush, Kobia alleged that the U.S. was recommending that "that U.S. churches and ecumenical agencies should cease to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Cuban children, woman and men through the Cuban Council of Churches." According to Kobia, such a policy would be a "gross violation of religious freedom" and a "remarkably aggressive interference in religious matters for which no government has the right or the spiritual competence."
Kobia's WCC, alarmed about supposed U.S. interference with religious liberty in Cuba, has rarely if ever expressed any interest in the Cuban government’s own policies of repression over 47 years. "We ask you to place no burden on the ability of U.S. churches and ecumenical organizations to engage in Christian fellowship and to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Cuban brothers and sisters through the Cuban Council of Churches," Kobia wrote to Bush. Once again, from the WCC perspective, Cuban Christians are "vulnerable" only because of U.S. policies, never because of Cuban communist policies.
"My understanding of the original text is different," Czech ecumenical leader Klubalova wrote Kobia about the proposed new U.S. policy. "As I see it the flow of non-agriculture and medical help from U.S. government could be possibly ceased through Cuban Council Churches but will definitely not stop to be provided through other channels." As she recalls, her own Ecumenical Council had been controlled by Czechoslovakia’s communist regime before communism’s collapse in1989. "Therefore, I understand those who have doubt [about helping] Cuban Christians just through official organisations," she wrote.
Klubalova noted that one of her council’s member denominations, the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, is in contact with the Cuban opposition and churches outside the Cuban Council of Churches, because "this is believed to be a good way of helping those in need who do not receive the support from official institutions." She also reminded Kobia that Czech churches "constantly draw attention to the Cuban plight," in light of their own still recent experiences with communism.
The Czech Christians are not getting much help from Western mainline Protestant groups in their concern over Cuba, just as Czechs and other East European Christians were ignored by the WCC and U.S. National Council of Churches during the Cold War, except as props for advocating U.S. disarmament. Klubalova was too polite to point that out specifically.
Predictably, the relief arm of the National Council of Churches (NCC) is joining in Kobia’s crocodile tears for Cuba’s Christians. "Church World Service would view any resulting regulations indicated in this report as unwarranted incursions into religious freedom by the Bush administration," said David McCullough, who head the NCC relief agency. "The report is an assault on ecumenical relations not only in Cuba but internationally and sets a dangerous precedent."
McCullough found it very "chilling" that the Cuban Council of Churches is cited by the U.S. as a "regime-controlled "organization. But why? Like all "official" religious groups in totalitarian regimes, it cannot operate separately from the government. Sincere Christians no doubt operate within it, justifiably fearful of the alternatives. But no one outside Cuba has an equal excuse for pretending that the Cuban church council has the same freedoms as the WCC and NCC.
A colleague of McCullough’s at Church World Service denounced the proposed U.S. policy as striking at "the heart of our religious identity and freedom. Religious freedom was a key principle to the founders of the American Republic." Noble words. But once again, the NCC relief arm only talks about religious freedom as a tool for condemning the U.S. It will never criticize communist or Islamist regimes that actually persecute religious minorities.
It is an old story for the NCC, WCC, and the bureaucracies of many of their member denominations. They eagerly latch onto partnerships with church councils in closed societies, and then cite the coerced political stances of those councils to support the legitimacy of their own anti-Western political agenda. "Look," they sheepishly claim, "we’re merely reiterating what Christians in those countries believe," while pretending not to notice the cocked pistols figuratively (or not so figuratively) aimed at Christians by their governments.
The U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, created by President Bush in 2003, seeks "to help Cubans hasten the day when they will be free from oppression and to develop a concise but flexible strategic plan that will help the Cuban people move rapidly toward free and fair democratic elections." How very sad that the agency of a secular government should express more concern about the human rights of the Cuban people than the international church groups, like the WCC and NCC, that profess allegiance to the love and justice of God.
Fortunately, not all ecumenical church groups share the WCC/NCC perspective.
Czech church council leader Klubalova told the WCC’s Kobia that her council would be "very happy" to host a "debate" on how WCC member churches could "help and support Cuban Christians." As she no doubt already knows, the WCC is unlikely to accept the invitation. But the Czech Christians, wizened by 50 years of totalitarian oppression, will speak on behalf of the Cuban Christians, even if others are silent.
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