As the case of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez drags on in the US courts, the National Council of Churches (NCC), the nation's biggest ecumenical agency, is continuing mediation efforts to return the boy to Cuba. Robert Edgar, the NCC's new general secretary, told Ecumenical News International (ENI) in an interview January 15 that he could not explain in detail the NCC's efforts. But he added that the NCC was supporting plans to bring either one or both of the boy's two grandmothers from Cuba to Miami, and then return them to Cuba with the boy.

"My ideal scenario would be for his two grandmothers to be sitting on a couch next to [US Attorney General] Janet Reno, and he'd come in and say: 'Grandma, Grandma, let's go home'," Edgar said.

The plan involving the grandmothers is the latest in a contentious immigration case that has become an international incident, enflaming passions and sparking massive protests in the US and Cuba.

For some conservatives the six-year-old boy's predicament has become a symbol of the conflict between democracy and dictatorship. The boy was rescued last November off the Florida coast after he survived an illegal trip from Cuba in which his mother and stepfather and other Cubans perished at sea.

Since his rescue, Elian has lived with relatives in Miami who want him to remain in the US. They have taken their case to court, arguing that the boy would be better off here than in Cuba, and that staying in the US would honor his mother's sacrifice.

But the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has ruled that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who was divorced from the boy's mother and remains in Cuba, has legal custody of the boy and that Elian should be returned to his country. US Attorney General Reno has supported the INS repatriation order, though she has allowed the relatives in Florida time to contest the INS ruling in the federal court. A federal judge is expected to rule on the case soon.

In the biggest protest so far over the immigration argument, a crowd, officially estimated at 100,000, marched through Havana January 14 demanding Elian's return. Among those marching was Elian's paternal grandmother, who said she would be willing to travel to Florida but only to meet her grandson and accompany him back to Cuba.

Edgar said both grandmothers had indicated that they wanted Elian returned to Cuba.

"This is not a healthy situation for the boy," said Edgar, a United Methodist minister and former US congressman who was recently appointed to the NCC. Edgar was in Washington, D.C. at the end of a week-long meeting with members of Congress seeking a solution to the case. On 15 January Edgar visited the White House on another matter, but he said that President Bill Clinton clearly wanted the case resolved.

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Earlier, Edgar criticized one of his former congressional colleagues, Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, who had tried to have Elian appear before a congressional committee. Edgar said that "using delaying tactics to prevent this child from going home is unseemly and it isn't fair to use him as a pawn in a political dispute."

"You don't subpoena a six-year-old child," Edgar told ENI.

Earlier this month, Joan Brown Campbell, Edgar's predecessor as NCC general secretary, and Oscar Bolioli, who heads the NCC Latin America and Caribbean office, traveled to Cuba and met Elian's father and family at the invitation of the Cuban Council of Churches. They concluded that Elian's father was acting in good faith and that the Cuban government was not exerting pressure on him.

"The report of my team was conclusive," Edgar said in a statement. "Juan Miguel Gonzalez is a loving and good father, and the grandparents and extended family wish Elian to be returned to them now. Rev. Bolioli and Rev. Campbell have told me that this is the just solution and that the boy should be returned home to his family who love him."

In a statement issued during the Havana visit, Dr Campbell said the fact that the maternal grandmother wanted the boy to be back with his father "tells you everything."

Campbell added that she felt there was "nothing programmed about this. This is just a simple family coming together in a time of trouble. You can feel that. It's hard to communicate it because it sounds too rote. But it's very real. I couldn't see any governmental influence in what was said. In fact, it would be impossible to get such a diverse and large group to speak and act in such a natural and touching way.". At least one commentator has publicly criticized the NCC over the issue. Writing in the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley said the NCC did not "represent American Protestants, and has long served as a lobby for the Marxist dictatorship of Fidel Castro."

"The National Council of Churches should drop its religious affiliation and register as an agent of the Cuban government" Billingsley wrote in a commentary on 10 January about the NCC entitled "National Council of Castro's friends." (The NCC has previously worked in partnership with the Cuban Council of Churches, has criticized the 40-year-old US economic embargo against Cuba and has provided Cuba with relief and humanitarian assistance.)

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Edgar said he was not surprised by such criticism. Such opinions would not, he said, alter the council's work or its position on the Elian Gonzalez case.

"Make no mistake," Edgar said in a statement. "The National Council of Churches is unequivocally in favor of reuniting the boy with his father and closest family members. This child needs his father and he needs him now. He must be taken home."

Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

For continuing coverage of the Elian Gonzalez controversy, see Yahoo!'s full coverage area on Cuba.

See yesterday's Associated Press story and earlier BBC and AP articles on the NCC's involvement in the case.