Several church leaders and heads of faith-based organizations applauded the recent White House decision to ease travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba for religious, educational and cultural exchanges.
The Rev. John L. McCullough, executive director of humanitarian agency Church World Service, expressed "profound joy" on behalf of its 37-member communions and partner ecumenical organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean for the new policy.
"At this time of rapid growth among Cuban churches your prescient and important action will finally allow U.S. churches and ecumenical institutions to accompany, support and mutually benefit from unrestricted fellowship with our Cuban church partners," McCullough wrote in a letter to President Obama on Tuesday.
"It will enable relations that are more than just historic, but which are vital also to the wellbeing of our churches and the ministries we serve."
CWS and sister ecumenical body National Council of Churches had sent a joint letter to Obama last May urging the president to lift the restriction on religious travel to Cuba. Under the previous travel policy, national religious organizations were only eligible to travel to Cuba once per quarter, and were subjected to other limitations.
Many religious organizations also reportedly had difficulty obtaining licenses to travel to Cuba or had to endure long delays in getting licenses renewed.
Under the new U.S. policy guidelines, religious and higher education organizations will hold general licenses, which do not require application or specific clearance by the Office of Foreign Assets Control for "purposeful" travel between the United States and Cuba.
The new policy also allows any American to send as much as $500 every three months to Cubans that are not part of the Castro administration or members of the Communist Party. U.S churches are now able to send funds more freely to religious institutions in Cuba to support their activities.
"I believe that in time we will realize this as the beginning of a new era of relations between the United States and Cuba," remarked McCullough.
The White House announced Friday that it will make changes to travel restrictions to Cuba with the goal to "enhance contact with the Cuban people and support civil society through purposeful travel, including religious, cultural and educational travel."
"These needed new policies are modest but important steps towards advancing our hopes for a better relationship between our people and the people of Cuba, a relationship which holds great promise of fostering positive and real change in Cuba," commented Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"We hope and pray that these needed measures to remove unnecessary restrictions on purposeful travel to Cuba and to offer greater people-to-people assistance to Cubans will be another step toward supporting the people of Cuba in achieving greater freedom, human rights, and religious liberty," he said.
CWS, NCC, and USCCB are also calling on Congress to lift the economic embargo on Cuba that has been in place since 1960.
Besides affecting religious organizations and individuals, the new travel policy also allows airports nationwide to apply for a license to charter flights to Cuba. Previously, only three airports were permitted to carry flights to Cuba: Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City.
The new policies will take effect within two weeks.