ERLC head lashes out at 'Gestapo-like' tactics in seizure of Elian Gonzalez

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said he was grieved and physically sickened by the "fascist, Gestapo-like" tactics used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to seize Elian Gonzalez from his family's home in Little Havana.

"I couldn't believe this was happening in the United States of America," said Richard Land on his nationally syndicated radio program April 24. "I'm even more appalled that evidently the polls out over the weekend indicated that 60 percent of American people approve of what [President] Clinton and [Janet] Reno did. If that's true, then our liberties are in deep peril and our country is in deeper trouble than any of us imagined."

In the early morning hours on April 22, INS agents armed with automatic weapons stormed the home of the 6-year-old boy's Miami relatives. Agents broke down doors, menaced occupants and fired pepper spray into a crowd of anti-Castro demonstrators outside the small house.

Inside the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, an agent dressed in green riot gear, armed with an automatic rifle, burst into a bedroom where Elian was being hidden. A female agent grabbed the boy and ran to an unmarked van where he was whisked away to be reunited with his father.

Land, president of the Baptist ethics agency, called the seizure of the boy disgusting. "Why subject Elian to this kind of trauma?" Land asked. "As a father, my heart ached as I saw that little boy terrified in the closet, terrified and clutching the agent as he was hauled out and whisked away in the night.

"Hasn't the boy been through enough? He's seen his mother die at sea trying to bring him to freedom in America. He survived in shark-infested waters, clinging to a life raft, and now he's been snatched away in the middle of the night," Land added.

Land was highly critical of President Clinton's role in the raid. "Clinton promised Sen. Bob Graham personally that there wouldn't be a midnight raid," Land said.

Graham, a Democrat, appearing on ABC's "This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts," said he was furious about Clinton's betrayal. "The president of the United States made that commitment to me that there would be no taking of this child in the night," Graham said. "I felt that ... the promise that had been made to me had been abrogated. I don't know if the president knew the decision was being made by lower echelons within his administration, but it was a clear commitment which was violated."

Graham also said he was unhappy with the timing of the raid, coming the day before Easter.

"There was an insensitivity and a crudeness to this," Graham said. "To do this at one of the most deeply religious periods of the year, to do it at a time when families are reflecting on spiritual values, to do it in the middle of the night ... to do it under all of those circumstances was absolutely intolerable, unnecessary, outrageous and has left a scar on this community."

Land also was upset about the timing of the raid. "The raid happened on Easter weekend, on the day between Good Friday and Easter, the two holiest days in the Christian calendar. Is this the same administration that suspended a bombing campaign out of respect for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan?" Land asked.

In other Elian-related comments, Land suggested:

-- That Elian Gonzalez is the property of the Cuban government. "Americans need to understand that if Elian is returned to Cuba we will be delivering him to the embrace of Fidel Castro, not his father. Under Cuban law, Elian, as described by Luis Fernandez of the Cuban mission in Washington, D.C., 'is a possession of the Cuban government.' A 1978 Cuban law mandates that parents raise children with a 'communist personality' and outlaws 'influences contrary to communist development.' At age 11, children are taken from their parents to government camps, to be indoctrinated into communism and labor in the fields. Parents have no 'parental rights' as we understand them in America."

-- That Cuban President Fidel Castro would deprogram Elian. "Castro has already prepared a 'guest house' in Havana for Elian, his father and his family to occupy when they return to Cuba. Here, Castro's ghoulish psychiatrists (the same people who have identified an official mental illness called "apathy to socialism") will immediately begin to 'deprogram' Elian of the damage done during his sojourn in freedom."

-- That the Cuban government practices slavery. "The Cuban government claims ownership of human beings. They are the 'possession' of the government. Sadly, we once had such an evil system in part of the United States. It was called slavery, and just as in Cuba, people consistently tried to escape such dehumanizing oppression."

-- That Elian's plight is akin to that of Civil War slaves. "Imagine a loving and devoted mother risking her life to bring her son from slavery to freedom. She loses her life in the escape attempt, but her 6-year-old son makes it to free territory. Would you send the boy back from Ohio to slavery in Kentucky because the boy's biological father was still on a plantation there? That is what the fugitive slave laws required you to do. Did we not fight a great war to end such abominations on our soil? Why should Elian be sent back to slavery, and why should his mother's sacrifice be negated?"

Land's views on the Gonzalez situation also were expressed in a column on the beliefnet.com Internet site.

In other action related to the Elian Gonzalez case, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., issued a temporary restraining order against the Secret Service that would clear the way for a Christian group to pray for Elian Gonzalez on a public sidewalk.

The Christian Defense Coalition was denied access and threatened with arrest if they conducted a prayer vigil on a public sidewalk immediately adjacent to the Cuban Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland.

"The court clearly moved quickly to safeguard the First Amendment rights of our clients," said James Henderson, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, an international public interest law firm. "This restraining order permits our clients to exercise their First Amendment rights on a public sidewalk without the threat of arrest or without being issued any citation.

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