By Gary G. Yerkey

President Obama’s initiatives for improved relations with Cuba will include more opportunities for religious leaders to visit the island nation. The president’s plan immediately launches discussions about restoring diplomatic relations, which were severed in 1961.

“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” the president said, referring to the longstanding U.S. policy of seeking to isolate the island nation. “Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

The president said the United States can do more to support the Cuban people and to promote American values through engagement. “After all,” he said, “these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.”

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A fact sheet issued by the White House said that U.S. engagement with Cuba will include strong support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms.

The White House said the United States will work with Cuba on matters of mutual concern, such as migration, countering narcotics, environmental protection, and preventing human trafficking.

A senior Obama administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Pope Francis and the Vatican had played a key role in the negotiations between the United States and Cuba that led to the decision to improve bilateral ties.

The official said Pope Francis had personally issued an appeal thorough a letter to President Obama and to Cuban President Raul Castro “encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship.” The letter also called on the two leaders to resolve the longstanding case of Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor who was imprisoned by Cuba in 2009, and the cases of three Cubans who have been imprisoned in the United States.

President Obama announced the release of Gross in a nationally televised statement at the White House at midday on December 17.

The senior administration official said Pope Francis had been aware that Obama was considering a change in the policy toward Cuba and had reached out to the president. His personal appeal had given “greater momentum” to the negotiations.

“The support of Pope Francis and the support of the Vatican was important to us,” the official said.

The steps aimed at improving relations between the United States and Cuba also include expanding travel to Cuba for family visits, professional research, humanitarian programs; removing limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects; authorizing expanded commercial sales to Cuba of certain goods and services; allowing certain financial transactions, including the use of U.S. credit and debit cards by U.S. visitors to Cuba; and initiating new programs aimed at increasing Cubans’ access to access modern telecommunications.

The predominant religion on the Caribbean island is Roman Catholicism, with an estimated 65 percent of the population of 11 million. But other churches and religions and religions also can be found in Cuba, including Protestantism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism.

According to Episcopal News Service, the Episcopal Church in Cuba is an autonomous diocese of the Anglican Communion under the authority of the Metropolitan Council of Cuba, whose members include Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. The council has overseen the workings of the Cuban church since it separated from the U.S.-based Episcopal Church in 1967.

Its origins in Cuba date to 1901, and today the church comprises 46 congregations and missions serving about 10,000 members. Last February, the Episcopal Church’s budget allocated $106,000 to the church in Cuba.

“I give thanks for the release today of prisoners held by Cuba and the United States,” Bishop Jefferts Schori said before the president’s announcement. “The return of Alan Gross and the remaining three of the Cuban Five to their homes will bring great rejoicing to their families and their nations. This action also opens the door to regularized relations between these two countries for the first time in 50 years. The Episcopal Church rejoices with these families and we have deep hope for the possibilities of reconciliation and exchange between the divided parts of the Church and humanity.”

The Vatican, meanwhile, issued a statement that Pope Francis wanted to express his “warm congratulations” to the governments of the United States and Cuba for the “historic decision” to establish diplomatic relations, “with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

It confirmed that the pope had written letters to Presidents Obama and Castro inviting them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest and to initiate “a new phase in relations” between the two countries. It said that the Vatican in October had received delegations from the United States and Cuba and had provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on “delicate matters.”

Image: President Barack Obama talks with President Raúl Castro of Cuba from the Oval Office on December 16. • Pete Souza/White House, via Flickr

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