Australia denies visas to Iraqi WYD pilgrims

Rome, Italy, Jul 12, 2008 / 03:58 am (CNA) .- The Australian government has denied visas to dozens of World Youth Day pilgrims from Iraq, citing concerns that participants will not return home and instead will seek asylum in Australia. One Chaldean Catholic priest called the decision “a slap at young people who wanted to go to witness to the faith and the joy of the church’s living in Iraq despite sufferings.”

Initially the Australian government denied visas for nearly 170 pilgrims, allowing only ten visas to aspiring World Youth Day participants, the SIR News Agency says. According to the website Baghdadhope, there are now only about 30 total visas available that will be granted “in extremis.”

Father Rayan P. Atto, parish priest of Mar Qardagh Church in Erbil, told SIR News Agency that the concerns about asylum seekers were unfounded, arguing that, “for young Christian Iraqis, taking part in the WYD in Sydney was not a way to leave their country.”

“Most of the group members come from northern Iraq, a quiet area,” he continued. “They have no reason to escape and they would certainly not do it on an occasion related to faith.”

Before it was reported that 30 visas would be available for pilgrims, Father Atto said the Australian Embassy in Amman, Jordan had approved only ten visas. “How can one reduce a group of almost 170 people down to just ten?” he asked.

The news of the 30 total visas did not satisfy Fr. Philip Najim, Chaldean Procurator to the Holy See.

“This is a real scandal, a slap at young people who wanted to go to witness to the faith and the joy of the church’s living in Iraq despite sufferings,” Fr. Najim said, speaking to MISNA news agency. “The dream of young Iraqis to participate in World Youth Day in Sydney shatters against the wall of mistrust and of bureaucracy, after the Australian embassy in Amman completely denied the visas in the beginning and then, today, granted 30 entry visas to the country… just 30, of which 12 are for religious and only 18 for young boys and girls, on a list of 170 people delivered since last year."

"What makes the refusal bitter is their inference that young people could take advantage of this opportunity to remain as applicants for asylum. According to them there would be no sufficient guarantees that they will return home,” the monsignor continued.

“The refusal of the entry visas to the young Iraqis who wished to attend the World Youth Day makes us very sad,” said Chaldean Bishop Jibrail Kassab of the Eparchy of Oceania and New Zealand.

“It would have been a great opportunity for sharing faith,” the bishop told SIR, “which would have been beneficial to so many young people, and not only Iraqis. Unfortunately, presumably political reasons prevented this.”

The Australian Embassy said that political, not economic reasons motivated their decision. The embassy said that in most cases the documents concerning the employment and financial situation of the pilgrims are missing.

However, the embassy had reportedly been informed that the Church would guarantee the visa applicants’ expenses.

According to Baghdadhope, the Iraqi World Youth Day delegation of 30 will include ten priests. The Most Rev. Mikha P. Maqdassi, the Chaldean Bishop of Al Qosh, will also be part of the delegation along with a nun, ten young people active in parish youth groups, and eight people designated to carry the cross in Sydney.

About 700 Iraqi emigrants living in Australia, the United States, and Europe will reportedly attend World Youth Day in Sydney next week.