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Kathleen Hyland reports for BBC News
"Continuing in Cuba are the largest anti-US demonstrations in years"
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Monday, 3 January, 2000, 18:36 GMT
American churches back Cuban father

Elian at US school Elian tours what could be his future classroom if he stays in Miami

Leaders of a prominent United States' church organisation have met the family of a six-year-old Cuban boy in an attempt to resolve an international custody dispute.

We believe that Elian Gonzalez should be returned to his family
US National Council of Churches

Relatives of Elian Gonzalez in the US have refused to send him back to his father in Cuba after the child was shipwrecked off the Florida coast in November.

"We believe that Elian Gonzalez should be returned to his family," Dr Joan Brown Campbell, a leader of the US National Council of Churches (NCC), said.

She and another council leader, the Reverend Oscar Bolioli, visited Elian's father and grandparents in the coastal town of Cardenas two hours east of Havana.

As the meeting took place, scores of neighbours waited in the street amid Cuban flags and placards saying "Free Elian!" or "Return Elian to his school-desk!".

Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, has demanded his return since the boy was rescued at sea after a boat crammed with illegal Cuban migrants capsized.

His mother, who was divorced from Mr Gonzalez, and stepfather drowned in the incident along with 10 others.

Elian and Lazaro Gonzalez Elian with his great uncle Lazaro Gonzalez

A highly-politicised custody battle arose across the Florida Straits with Elian's relatives in Miami maintaining that his mother had intended him to live in the US, rather than communist Cuba.

However the NCC, which represents 35 Christian denominations, is working with the Cuban Council of Churches to have the boy returned. It says Mr Gonzalez has the sole right to custody of his son.

"We just want to help the boy get back to his dad," council spokeswoman Carol Fouke said.

Increased tension

Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great uncle in Miami, said the Council of Churches could do what it pleased because the US was a free country.

"If they want to go to Cuba, that is their problem, not mine," he said.

The custody case has increased tension between the US and Cuba, with Cuban President Fidel Castro pledging to continue a campaign to bring Elian home.

"We are ready to go on; we can go for a day, a week, a month, three months, six months, for a lifetime," he declared.

students A national campaign is under way in Cuba

In December, Cubans held several mass demonstrations outside the US mission in Havana demanding the boy's return.

Elian's relatives in the US have filed a petition for political asylum on his behalf. The US Immigration and Naturalisation Service is scheduled to hear the case on 21 January.

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See also:
13 Dec 99 |  Americas
Crucial talks over shipwreck boy
11 Dec 99 |  Americas
Asylum bid for shipwreck boy
05 Dec 99 |  Americas
Castro warns US over shipwreck boy
13 Dec 99 |  Americas
US hits back over shipwreck boy
07 Dec 99 |  Americas
In pictures: Shipwreck boy sparks protests
24 Dec 99 |  Americas
Cuba attacks custody battle delay

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