U.S. Treasury officials have fined the Alliance of Baptists $34,000, accusing members of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham and several other churches of engaging in prohibited tourist activities while in Cuba last year for religious purposes.
The Alliance plans to notify the U.S. Treasury Department by Sept. 1 that it will appeal the fine, said Executive Director Stan Hastey.
The Alliance, a small moderate Baptist group that held its annual national meeting in Birmingham earlier this year, was notified last year that its license to travel to Cuba was revoked.
That letter specifically cited a delegation from Baptist Church of the Covenant with violations.
“The purpose of the trip was to go there for a site visit to get a feel for what kind of partnership we could develop,” said the Rev. Sarah Jackson Shelton, pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant, who did not go on the trip. Associate Pastor John Duke and lay coordinator Todd Hefner organized the trip, relying on Hastey and Cuban church officials for guidance, she said.
“We didn’t go there to be tourists,” said Duke, the minister of education and community ministry.
He said one church member bought Cuban cigars which were confiscated by U.S. Customs, and that prompted extra scrutiny of the itinerary.
“None of us on the trip feel like we did anything wrong,” Duke said. “The government seems to be cracking down on religious groups to keep them from helping the people in Cuba.”
Wanted Cuba ties
Shelton said the delegation from her church went to establish ties with Baptist Church of Boca de Muriel, which also has a woman pastor.
“They were visiting people, visiting the church and the island to understand their life,” Shelton said. “They attended worship services and shared meals. That was the intent of the trip.”
They hoped for a sister-church relationship.
“A potter in our church made a communion plate and cup for them, identical to what we use,” Shelton said. “It would be a constant reminder to pray for those Baptists in Cuba.”
The 2005 letter from the Treasury Department revoking the Alliance’s travel license to Cuba mentioned Baptist Church of the Covenant specifically and accused the delegation of not engaging in a full-time schedule of religious activities as required by the license: “The itinerary included approximately four hours of religious activities each day, on average. The rest of the time was filled with walking and driving tours, sightseeing and beach time in Varadero, and visits to farms, museums and crafts markets.”
Hastey, who said he was on the March 10-16, 2005, trip along with five representatives from Baptist Church of the Covenant, defended the group.
“All that driving time was to get from one church to another,” he said. Hastey said the group’s visit to the beach resort town of Varadero near Havana may have raised a red flag.
“It is well-known by religious groups that have traveled to Cuba for years that the Presbyterian guest house in the city, not in the resort area, made available meals and overnight accommodations,” Hastey said. “Lots and lots of religious groups use that facility. The church we visited did not have resources to house a group.”
Four others listed
The Treasury Department’s most recent letter notifying Hastey of the $34,000 fine, dated July 5, mentioned four other Alliance churches guilty of violations during trips to Cuba under the license between 2003 and 2005.
Those congregations are the First Baptist churches of Washington, D.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Greenville, S.C.; and Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville.
The Alliance, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has an annual budget of $374,000 and 117 affiliated churches. It started as a moderate break-off from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1987 amidst a theological controversy that resulted in a major shift toward more conservative leadership in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The Alliance has since prided itself on its mission work, including a partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba.
Cuba’s future cloudy
The fine and revocation of the license comes against a backdrop of transition in the Communist nation just 90 miles from Florida. Cuban President Fidel Castro has been out of sight since July 31, when he underwent intestinal surgery and temporarily ceded power to his younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.
Hastey believes the Bush administration has been cracking down on Cuban policy, and singled out the Alliance because of its opposition to the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. “This was a pretext to get at the Alliance for reasons the Treasury Department has chosen not to announce,” Hastey said.
Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise declined comment, saying the department does not discuss individual cases.
Shelton did not dispute that members of the church delegation may have made visits to farms, museums and crafts markets, as alleged in the letter. “We’ve never really had it fully explained to us,” Shelton said.
“It was our very first trip; we didn’t know,” she said. “Part of that was to help the economy. It was all done in conjunction with the pastor of the Cuban church and director of the Baptist convention in Cuba.”
The fine would constitute about 10 percent of the Alliance’s budget for operating expenses. “It’s a hefty fine,” Hastey said.
The Alliance may end up settling, but even a reduced fine would be a blow, he said.
“I really was surprised,” Hastey said. “The letter suspending our license gave no indication there was a continuing investigation. I thought that our license was suspended and that would be it.”