A delegation of U.S. religious leaders visiting Cuba has asked for access to an American man imprisoned for bringing restricted communications equipment to the island, a leading clerical official said Tuesday.
The 15-member delegation is still awaiting word on whether they will be allowed to visit Maryland man Alan Gross, said Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the New York-based National Council of Churches, an umbrella group of U.S. Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations.
"We're concerned about Mr. Gross and we hope to be able to meet with him" before the group leaves Friday, Kinnamon said.
Saturday will mark two years since Gross, 62, was arrested in Cuba while working as a subcontractor on a democracy-building project financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Earlier this year he was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The government of President Raul Castro says such projects violate Cuba's national sovereignty and are attempts at regime change.
Gross, who has said he was setting up Internet for Cuba's small Jewish community, denies any intention to harm the country and called himself a "trusting fool" who was "duped," according to court testimony released by his lawyer.
On Monday his wife, Judy, said Gross had sought reassurance that what he was doing was legal, but was told by his company not to ask Cuban officials.
Several visiting American dignitaries have been allowed to visit Gross this year, including former President Jimmy Carter, a delegation of U.S. women leaders and a Washington-area rabbi. Judy Gross also visited her husband earlier this month for the third time since his arrest.
She said Gross has lost more than 100 pounds (45 kilos) in custody, while arthritis now makes it difficult for him to walk.
Speculation that he might be freed on humanitarian grounds has not turned into anything concrete, and talk of a possible swap for five Cuban intelligence agents in the United States has so far been just that.
In September, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson visited Cuba and told reporters he had been invited to negotiate Gross' release. But Richardson's efforts collapsed into an exchange of recriminations, with him calling Gross a "hostage" and Cuban officials accusing him of trying to blackmail them.
Kinnamon said Tuesday that his group would be very welcoming of a humanitarian release. As have other Cuban and U.S. officials, he downplayed the likelihood of a prisoner exchange involving the so-called Cuban Five, who were convicted of espionage but maintain they were only monitoring virulently anti-Castro exile groups in Florida.
"We don't see these as situations that we want to link with one another," Kinnamon said. "That is, the Cuban Five is a major issue in itself. ... We also are very concerned about that."
The Council has called on the U.S. government to review the men's lengthy prison sentences, he added.
Kinnamon's delegation also was waiting to hear whether it would be granted time with President Castro. They did meet with parliament chief Ricardo Alarcon, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and U.S. medical students on the island.
About 120 Americans are on scholarship at Cuba's Latin American School of Medical Sciences, which is currently educating some 11,000 low-income students from 93 nations.
Kinnamon said his organization has opposed the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba for many years and called for a thaw in relations between the Cold War foes, which have been even icier after Gross' arrest.
"We want to call attention to the importance of normal relations between our countries," Kinnamon said, "and we think high-level church leaders will be one good way to do that."
Kinnamon, who gave a Thanksgiving Day sermon in Matanzas province last week, recently announced that he would step down as general secretary of the National Council of Churches but remains in the post during a transition period.