(JTA) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asked the Vatican to intercede in helping free American-Jewish contractor Alan Gross from a Cuban jail.
Kerry said in a meeting Tuesday with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, they discussed Cuba and the need for respect for freedom of religion and human rights in the island nation.
“I raised the issue of Alan Gross and his captivity, and we hope very much that they might be able to be of assistance with respect to that issue,” Kerry told reporters following the meeting.
Gross, 64, a subcontractor for the State Department on a mission to hook up Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet, was arrested in December 2009 as he was leaving Cuba. The Maryland resident is serving a 15-year sentence for “crimes against the state.”
Edward Alex Lee, the U.S. acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with Gross late last week while in Havana for migration talks with Cuba. He declined to give details of the meeting.
Lee said that during the talks, the United States demanded that Cuba release Gross, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune. He also said that the Gross case is a key issue in the troubled relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.
Gross says he has lost 100 pounds since his imprisonment and suffers from painful arthritis. He reportedly leaves his shared cell once a day for one hour.
In a letter sent last month, Gross asked President Obama to personally help secure his release.
The Cuban government has indicated that it wants the United States to allow the return to Cuba of five spies in prison or on probation in the U.S. in return for negotiations on Gross.
Kerry is the first Catholic U.S. secretary of state in more than 30 years, according to Reuters.
He and Parolin in their meeting also discussed such issues as Syria, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and global poverty.