Pope Francis speaks at the conclusion of Mass at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in the United States in September 2015. Pakistani families are angry after being denied visas for this month's event in Ireland. (Photo by AFP)
Christians in Pakistan have been left reeling after the Irish government denied them visas to attend the upcoming World Meeting of Families.
About 10,000 families applied from all over the country — 600 from Karachi Archdiocese alone — for the Aug. 21-26 event in Dublin that will be attended by Pope Francis. All were refused visas.
Father Anthony Abraz, parish priest of Good Shepherd Church in Karachi, is among six priests who had visa applications rejected for providing no evidence of a connection with, or of traveling to, similar events in the past.
"The visa officer has found insufficient evidence of strong family, social, economic or other obligations to return to your home country," stated the response to families from Ireland's consulate in Karachi, which also expressed dissatisfaction at their purpose for travelling to Ireland, financial situation, family circumstances, employment details, travel history, host in Ireland and itinerary.
"All applications should have been assessed on a case-by-case basis," Father Abraz said, adding that two groups of laity received letters with the same text.
"We had carefully selected potential pilgrims, including school principals and NGO directors, from the executive class. Cardinal Joseph Coutts of Karachi only granted letters of recommendation to those who were not interested in seeking asylum."
Samuel Sarfraz, who works in a pharmaceutical company in Multan city of Punjab province, sold a residential plot to raise 300,000 rupees (US$2,420) for non-refundable visa applications and registration fees for his family of three children to attend the Irish event.
"This is a conspiracy to mint money from people who are already marginalized and discriminated against in a Muslim-majority country. If the policy was to reject all Pakistanis, why did they accept visa and registration fees for the world meeting?" he asked.
"We only wanted to see our beloved Holy Father. The refusal affects our prospects of visiting any European country."
Pakistan ranked fourth on the Open Doors World Watch List 2017 of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Pope St. John Paul II's 1981 visit is the only one by a pope to Pakistan, while the Henley Passport Index ranks the Pakistani passport as the fourth worst in the world for international travel.
Religious minorities, especially Christians, Hazara Shias and Ahmadis, often cite religious persecution to live in exile or claim refugee status in other countries.