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U.S. religious leaders to appeal to Cuba to free Potomac contractor Alan Gross

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 10, 2011; 8:26 PM

At first, the arrest of a U.S. government contractor in Cuba seemed like just one more irritant in a tense bilateral relationship. But 13 months later, Alan P. Gross is still in prison, his family in the Washington area is desperate, and his detention has emerged as a major obstacle to progress between the former Cold War enemies.

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On Tuesday morning, 17 religious leaders, including Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate in Washington, will hold a prayer service to appeal for a break in a case that has become more intractable than virtually anyone expected.

"We'd love to have this lead to his freedom," said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, which organized the event.

"Nothing else has."

Gross was picked up while working to provide satellite-phone and computer gear to Cuban Jews to help them communicate with Jews abroad. It was part of a controversial, secretive American democracy-promotion program that mushroomed under the George W. Bush administration.

Some Cuban officials have alleged that Gross is a spy, but the U.S. government has strongly denied that. He has not been charged.

The prayer service, at 9:45 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington, occurs as State Department officials are in Cuba to attend the latest in a series of periodic meetings on migration. They will once again press for Gross's freedom, State Department officials said.

The contractor's detention has ended a thaw in relations with Cuba that occurred after the Obama administration took office. U.S. officials have put on hold plans to make it easier for U.S. religious, cultural and sports groups to visit Cuba.

Increasing such "people-to-people programs" is "still our objective," Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said last week.

However, "we've made it clear to the Cuban authorities that it's very difficult to move to greater engagement in the context where they have continued to hold Alan Gross," he said at the Brookings Institution.

Gross, who lived in Potomac with his wife and has two daughters, traveled for years to the Middle East, Africa and other places to work on development projects. But the 61-year-old contractor appeared oblivious to the dangers involved when he started doing U.S. democracy-promotion work in Cuba, friends and family say.

It is illegal under Cuban law to bring satellite phone equipment to Cuba without a permit, something that apparently did not trouble Gross.

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