September 3, 2000

U.S. National Council of Churches delegation arrives in Cuba

                  HAVANA (AP) -- Seeking to strengthen ties that were built with Cuban religious
                  groups during the Elian Gonzalez custody case, a delegation from the U.S.
                  National Council of Churches arrived in Havana Saturday and plans to meet with
                  the boy's family next week.

                  The council, an ecumenical group of mainline Protestant and Orthodox
                  churches, supported efforts to reunite the boy with his father earlier this year
                  after relatives in Miami sought custody of the child following his mother's death
                  at sea in 1999.

                  "We hope that the Elian Gonzalez case can show us that a little child can lead us
                  into a new future," said Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the New
                  York-based council.

                  Edgar visited Cuba earlier this year when the National Council of Churches
                  sponsored a trip by Elian's grandmothers to visit the boy in the United States.

                  Referring to Elian's return to Cuba in June, and his entry into second-grade
                  classes Friday, Edgar said "it took a long time, but we are all delighted that Elian
                  is back at home and back at school."

                  On Tuesday, the eight-member delegation will distribute 1,000 kits of school
                  supplies donated by congregations in the United States to schools in Elian's
                  hometown of Cardenas, 90 miles (140 kms) east of Havana.

                  At the invitation of the Cuban Council of Churches, four of the eight members of
                  the delegation will preach at Sunday services in Havana churches.

                  The two groups will discuss how to improve relations between Cuba and the
                  United States. "We are coming with our eyes open and with sense of urgency
                  that a new relationship can be built," Edgar said.

                  They will also talk about how to "reach out in new ways to Roman Catholics,
                  Pentacostals and evangelicals."

                  While once overwhelming Roman Catholic, Protestant and evangelical
                  congregations have been growing rapidly in Cuba in recent years.

                  Relations between Cuban churches and the communist government have steadily
                  improved over the past decade, including a historic visit here by Pope John Paul
                  II in January 1998. Frictions remain, however, and the Catholic Church
                  continues to press for more religious freedoms, especially access to the media
                  and church schooling.

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