Agent for church council to press U.S. to send Elian back to dad in Cuba

CARDENAS, Cuba -- The representatives of an influential American church organization met with the father of a 6-year-old boy rescued off Florida's coast and promised to press the U.S. government to return the child to Cuba.

"We need to help our president see that the issue is a moral one, a humanitarian one," said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the outgoing general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "We need to be concerned for a small boy rather than politics."

Campbell spoke with reporters after meeting with Elian Gonzalez's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, and the child's four grandparents and great-grandmother in this coastal town about a two-hour drive east of Havana.

Accompanied by Cuban church representatives, Campbell, a Baptist minister, was clearly affected by her hourlong visit inside Gonzalez's modest two-story home, built of brick and cement on an unpaved street where horse-drawn carts are as common as automobiles.

"This is a very loving family," Campbell said, appearing to be on the verge of tears. "We are more convinced than ever that this child belongs with this family. We will work very hard to make sure (Elian) comes back very soon."

She said the council is willing to play a mediation role in the dispute and even to physically transport Elian back to Cuba and turn him over to the Cuban Council of Churches to be returned to his father.

The council is the United States' largest ecumenical organization, representing 35 Protestant and Orthodox denominations comprising 52 million congregants.

U.S. officials gave temporary custody of Elian to his paternal great-uncle in Miami in late November after the child was found clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast. Elian's mother died in the apparent attempt to illegally immigrate to the United States.

The case has become a political tug-of-war, with Gonzalez demanding that his son be returned to him in Cuba and the great-uncle fighting to keep the child in Miami.

People on both sides of the Florida Straits have used the case to make their own political points for or against Fidel Castro's communist government.

Gonzalez, who has shunned publicity in recent weeks, said he was grateful for the council's efforts. He said he understood his son was well, but that he missed him very much. "How could I not miss him?" he asked.

He also said that he met a second time with Immigration and Naturalization Service officials on Friday, but declined to provide details for fear of harming his case.

During an earlier meeting with INS officials in Cuba, Gonzalez provided them with the boy's birth certificate, photographs and other documents aimed at proving his paternity and assumption of parental responsibilities.

The child's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, was to present his own case to the INS in Miami before Christmas, but that meeting was postponed until Jan. 21.

Campbell said she had informed the White House about the group's trip and efforts to reunite Elian with his father.