- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — U.S. officials have blocked a Cuban minister from coming to America to speak at several Alabama churches for Black History Month, denying the pastor a visa.

The Rev. Raul Suarez of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana canceled his trip this month.

State Department officials declined to comment on the Suarez application, citing confidentiality rules. Officials at the U.S. Interests Section, the American Mission in Havana, also declined to comment.

“Our policy is that we do not comment on individual cases,” said Brenda Greenberg, a State Department spokeswoman. “It’s a privacy issue.”

Mr. Suarez was invited by the Society Mobile-La Havana, a Mobile-based sister-cities group. The visit was to have included speeches to local civic groups and sermons at area churches.

Members said they received a call Friday from a State Department official informing them that Mr. Suarez’s visa application, submitted Nov. 10, had been denied.

“Whatever the reason, the decision is not helping America’s reputation in the world for freedom to travel,” said Jay Higginbotham, the group’s board chairman.

Mr. Higginbotham was told that Mr. Suarez was refused a visa because he is a deputy on Cuba’s National Assembly, or parliament. The U.S. government traditionally has denied visas to higher-ranking Cuban officials and leaders of the island’s Communist Party.

But Mr. Suarez said he never has belonged to the Communist Party nor any other political organization in Cuba.

“Every country has the right to grant a visa or not, but I worry about shutting down such a fluid exchange between the churches of both countries,” he said.

Mr. Suarez, who serves as director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Havana, also was scheduled to walk a portion of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail and visit other significant sites of the civil rights movement.

The minister said he has received visas to the United States several times in the past decade, most recently in 1999.

Although Cuba became officially “atheist” in the years after the 1959 communist revolution that brought President Fidel Castro to power, the government since has changed its self-description to “secular” and has engaged in wary embraces of religious organizations.

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