WASHINGTON (CNS) — Religious leaders pushed President Barack Obama in an Oct. 22 letter to step up efforts at normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba.

“We believe that an improved, more cooperative relationship between our nation and Cuba would benefit Cuban churches and help facilitate progress toward full political freedom and economic opportunity for the Cuban people,” said the letter, signed by 21 leaders of faith-based organizations, including the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the Franciscan Action Network, the Maryknoll Sisters, Pax Christi USA and Network, which is a Catholic social justice lobby.

The letter urged Obama to take several actions, including:

— Initiating direct, high-level dialogue with the Cuban government.

— Removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

— Lifting all restrictions on “people-to-people” travel between the U.S. and Cuba.

Two years ago, Obama loosened restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba to participate in educational or cultural exchanges, and for religious purposes, and lifted limits on how often Cuban-Americans can visit their families there and on how much money they can send to Cuba.

The letter observed that since the 2011 executive directive eased restrictions on religious travel, “our communities have a great deal of experience traveling … to Cuba for permitted purposes.”

“At both the church-wide and local levels, our members can provide firsthand witness to the degree to which such relationship-building serves the common good of both nations and strengthens our common witness for peace, dignity and human rights,” it said. “We have neither experienced nor observed any adverse consequences from this period of expanded relationship, and we strongly urge that the same opportunity be available to all residents of the United States.”

For its part, Cuba no longer requires its citizens to get government permission to travel, including to the United States, and has made other economic changes, such as allowing people to start private businesses and to buy and sell property. The Cuban government announced in mid-October that it will phase out its dual currency system, which has one form of money for use by Cubans and another for foreign visitors.

The letter noted that in May, Cuban religious leaders wrote to their U.S. counterparts, expressing “their hope for a swiftly implemented normalization of the relationship between the United States and Cuba. We, their U.S.-based colleagues, share their hope for a more fruitful, open relationship between Americans and our Cuban brothers and sisters. We believe now is the time for the United States to take concrete action to pursue a path toward improved relations with Cuba.”

In addition to the leaders of the Catholic organizations, the letter to Obama was signed by heads of: the National Council of Churches, the Progressive National Baptist Convention; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the Unitarian Universalist Association; the United Methodist Church; the United Church of Christ; the Armenian Orthodox Church; the Church of the Brethren; Church World Service, the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; American Baptist Churches USA; the American Friends Service Committee; the Christian Reformed Church in North America; and the Center of Concern.