A U.S. religious freedom body was denied visas to enter Cuba for a fact-finding mission that included meetings with the island's religious communities and government officials, the group said on Monday.
The U.S. Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan group created to monitor religious freedom in the world, was forced to cancel a planned trip to Cuba when visas were withheld for members of the delegation. The Cuban government did not give any explanation for withholding the visas, the Commission said.
"We are very disappointed by the Cuban government's refusal to allow an official U.S. delegation to investigate first-hand Cuban citizens' freedom to believe and practice their faith on the island," said Felice D. Gaer, chair of USCIRF. "Our Commission has visited China, Vietnam, Laos, Saudi Arabia and other countries. Does the Cuban government have something to hide?"
Cuba has been on USCIRF's "Watch List" of countries that require close monitoring due to the violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments.
USCIRF noted that it had planned the trip weeks in advance and had received the support of the U.S. State Department for the official visit.
The Commission's announcement of its visa denial came the same day the Obama administration lifted the travel ban on Cuban-Americans who want to visit their homeland. Cuban-Americans are also now allowed to send money back to their island nation.
Easing of some Cuba-related restrictions marks a break with the nearly half century U.S. policy toward the communist state. Cuba is the only country in the world that most Americans are still barred from visiting.
But there have reportedly been slight improvements in Cuba since Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel Castro, became president last year. Under Raul Castro, Cuba signed two international human rights treaties that his brother Fidel Castro had opposed for 30 years. Raul Castro has also called for public debate about Cuba's future without fear of reprisal, as long as participants do not challenge the socialist system.
Cuban churches have also reported growth despite the communist government's restrictions on religion. The number of house churches on the island has soared to anywhere from 3,000 to more than 16,000, according to different sources, up from only 1,100 churches and house churches in 1991 – the year when the Congressional Communist party voted to change Cuba's constitution status from an atheist to a secular state.
"The Commission has received reports that there are improvements in some sectors in Cuba. As with other countries, we seek to ascertain how much and where," Gaer acknowledged in a statement. "If everything is so normal in Cuba, then the Cuban government should welcome a USCIRF visit. Not allowing USCIRF's bipartisan delegation to visit is a very disturbing sign."
But Cuban President Castro seems to be open to improving U.S.-Cuba relations and has said he is prepared to negotiate with the Obama administration, provided there are no preconditions.