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CUBA-BISHOPS (UPDATED) Aug-19-2009 (520 words) With photos. xxxi

US bishops press for further easing of restrictions on Cuba

By Catholic News Service

HAVANA (CNS) -- A delegation of U.S. Catholic bishops visiting Cuba urged U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leaders to take advantage of the change in the U.S. administration to end the trade embargo Washington has imposed on the island nation since 1962.

"I believe that the church (both in Cuba and the U.S.) wants to be the protagonist of a better approach," Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., a member of the U.S. bishops' international policy committee, told reporters at a press conference in Havana Aug. 18.

After a meeting earlier in the day with the staff at the U.S. Interests Section, which represents the government in the absence of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries, Bishop Wenski said he believes the Obama administration's revision of policies toward Cuba is serious and proceeding step by step.

The U.S. church supports easing travel to Cuba and eliminating the embargo that prohibits most trade between the two countries.

Obama has already announced the easing of restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba to visit relatives, loosened restrictions on how much money people can send to their relatives, and created some openings in trade barriers to facilitate telecommunications improvements. Efforts are pending in Congress to end all travel restrictions and to end the trade embargo.

"The church of Cuba wants these changes as much as the church in the United States," said Bishop Wenski.

He also said such gestures raise the confidence of both parties that further change is possible. He insisted that after opportunities for change were lost in the past "it's important we not lose the opportunity this time."

Bishop Wenski, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley and San Antonio Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantu were visiting Cuba the week of Aug. 17, in part to see the island's progress in recovering from three hurricanes and two tropical storms that hit late last summer and fall.

The U.S. bishops provided $250,000 in hurricane relief aid as part of $860,000 in support given last year to the church in Cuba.

The U.S. prelates, accompanied by Oblate Father Andrew Small, head of the Church in Latin America office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cardinal O'Malley's secretary, Father Jonathan Gaspar, also met with Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino and were scheduled to meet with Ricardo Alarcon, the head of Cuba's parliament.

At the press conference, Cardinal O'Malley said the U.S. church "has a very close historical relationship with this country." Since the visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II in 1998, Cardinal O'Malley said, conditions for the church and its relations with the government have clearly improved.

"We see that the church now has more space, and we want to see that grow," he added.

Bishop Wenski said he was astonished at the progress at a seminary built recently near Havana. He said it is appropriate that during this Year for Priests designated by the Vatican the seminary is the place where the seeds of vocations are nurtured.

He said the presence of a seminary in Cuba is testimony to the hope for the pastoral mission of the church.


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