Many Catholics from South Asian nations, whose passports rank in bottom 10 globally, were rejected or still wait for visas
A volunteer walks in a corridor at the World Youth Day (WYD) headquarters in Lisbon on June 14. Portugal will be hosting the event for young people organized by the Catholic Church from August 1 to 6. (Photo: AFP)
For 28-year-old Xavier Minj Oli, it came as a shock. What the ethnic Oraon Catholic from Bangladesh thought would be a trip of a lifetime was scuttled when the Portuguese embassy denied him a visa to attend the World Youth Day (WYD) in Lisbon.
Oli’s is not an isolated case. Several young Catholics who wanted to attend WYD celebrations have complained of Portuguese authorities rejecting their visa applications, supposedly to prevent them from overstaying and becoming illegal migrants in Europe.
Just like Oli, six other young Catholics from Bangladesh were denied visas scuppering their plans to attend the Aug. 1-6 global gathering which is expected to attract about 2 million people to the Portuguese capital.
More than a hundred people in Pakistan are still waiting for the visa, weeks after they have applied for it.
Church officials in Bangladesh planned to send a delegation of 23 people to Lisbon, but only 16 — including two bishops, four priests and a nun — received a visa. The applications of seven young people were rejected.
“There was no shortage of paperwork from our side. Our applications were similar in every way and followed all the rules. But unfortunately, seven youths were denied visas,” Holy Cross Father Bikash James Rebeiro told UCA News on June 27.
He said the visa documentation for each one included guaranteeing expenses in Portugal. It included proof of provision for food, accommodation, a return ticket and health insurance, besides a certificate from the Church showing that it is a group travel for a Church program, Father Rebeiro said.
Church officials in Pakistan planned to send a 17-strong delegation, including a bishop and a priest. They applied for visas on June 1, but are still waiting for their visa, said Ferhan Lawrence, executive secretary of the Catholic Youth Commission of the national bishops’ conference.
“It’s an alarming situation. Even the diocesan youth commission director of Islamabad- Rawalpindi diocese is awaiting the call for a visa interview from the embassy,” Lawrence told UCA News on June 28.
Not just official delegates
The Pakistani delegation plans to leave for Portugal on July 29.
“There is a month to go,” Lawrence said, adding that he is “hopeful” about getting the visas for the official delegation.
However, he said he is unsure about hundreds of other Pakistani Catholics, who have applied individually.
Rashid Shehzad, one of those who want to attend WYD independently, said he was still awaiting a response from the embassy.
The 25-year-old said he paid 86,000 rupees (US$300) to WYD organizers for food and accommodation, from money loaned from his brother.
“It is big money” in recession-hit Pakistan. “If I cannot go, and don’t get the registration money back, it will be terrible,” he said.
Shehzad, a member of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul parish in Faisalabad, said some 80 young Catholics from the diocese, paid and registered for WYD in April. “They are all in limbo like me,” he said.
He said all of them were aware of the visa rules and complied with them but the embassy did not even call them for a visa interview.
Shehzad said communication with the Portuguese embassy is hardly possible. It will only receive a limited number of emails a day.
“If the email bounces back, we have to keep sending it until it is accepted. The embassy also doesn’t take our calls,” said Shehzad.
Hard for South Asians
For South Asians, “getting a visa to a Western country for World Youth Day is not easy because, in the past, a number of delegates who went to the event never came back,” said Father Chetan Machado, secretary of the Indian bishops' Commission for Youth.
He said even if all the normal visa rules are fulfilled embassies are reluctant to issue visas for young Catholics because of the past history.
“They look for a guarantee that the visitors will return home” from a third party. That’s very difficult to get,” Machado said.
But this year, Church officials in India scrutinized everyone while selecting their 250-member delegation from each of 174 dioceses, the priest said.
“We can say that each bishop is guaranteeing the youths he is recommending for the event,” the priest said.
“As of now, no one from our group has faced any visa-related problem from the Portuguese embassy in New Delhi. We expect to get our visas by July 10,” Machado said.
The Indian Church’s official delegation includes three bishops, 45 priests, 15 religious sisters, and 190 youths from 174 dioceses. Some religious congregations also plan to send some young people.
“So, some 900-1,000 Indians will be in Lisbon,” he said.
However, Rebeiro, the secretary of the Bangladesh bishops’ youth commission, said they also scrutinized their applicants, and “none of the young people we selected intended to stay in Europe.”
Portugal does not have an embassy in Bangladesh, short-term visas are issued through the French embassy in Dhaka, the priest said.
French officials said they found “inconsistencies in what the youths said” during the visa interview, he added.
Oli, youth secretary of Dinajpur diocese in Bangladesh, told UCA News that he, and others who were denied visas, have been preparing for the event along with others for a year as it comes after the Covid-19 restrictions.
“We are planning to showcase the cultural variety of our country. The event is also an occasion for us to learn about other cultures and the cultural vibrancy of the Catholic Church,” he said.
The visa denial was “unfair. Western countries talk about fairness and human rights, I think they have wronged us,” said Oli, who has closely worked with the youth commission since 2013.
According to the Henley Passport Index, which ranks all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa, Pakistan and Bangladesh passports are ranked among the bottom ten in the world.
India is ranked 86th on its list of 199 passports.
Saint Pope John Paul II initiated the World Youth Day gathering in 1985. The week-long event occurs every three years. It aims to celebrate faith through song, dance, prayer, and the sharing of experiences.
“We will apply again and hopefully, we will be granted a visa,” Oli said.
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