U.S. Rejects Church Leaders’ Bid to Visit Guantanamo

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. church leaders said on Wednesday the Pentagon had rebuffed their plea to send a small interfaith delegation to minister to detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former U.S. congressman, said his group would continue to press its case for a visit with U.S. officials.

Edgar, in a Dec. 8 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft, asked to send an interdenominational delegation to the Guantanamo base prison to visit the detainees.

“This request stems from our religious conviction that all people — regardless of religion, culture or status — be treated with dignity, which translates to humanitarian concern for the detainees’ physical and mental well being, and pastoral concern for their spiritual well being,” he wrote.

In a reply received last Friday, Pentagon official Jeffrey Starr told Edgar that access to “the enemy combatants” detained at the base was “only provided to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and on a case-by-case basis to government officials for legitimate government purposes.”

Starr said the United States was treating the detainees humanely and had given them “proper shelter and excellent medical care” as well as Korans and food that met their religious requirements. “Each is allowed to exercise his religious beliefs,” he added.

The United States began sending foreign nationals caught as part of the U.S. global war on terrorism to the facility two years ago. Most were captured in Afghanistan.

The council was part of a broad coalition of religious and human rights organizations that filed a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court this month asserting that foreign nationals being held at the base have the right to challenge the legality of their detention.

International organizations including the Red Cross have accused the United States of condemning the prisoners to a “legal black hole.”

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