Visa denials vex Lutheran assembly – News
CANADA’S DECISION to deny visas to more than two dozen African and Asian delegates to this month’s Lutheran World Federation (LWF) assembly in Winnipeg has perplexed leaders of the Swiss-based organization representing 62 million Lutherans. Barely two weeks before the long-planned event, LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko admitted he was “anxious and desperate” over the fact that Canadian immigration officials had denied visas to 27 participants from 11 countries. “A significant number of the participants from churches, mainly in the [southern hemisphere], will be locked out from this very important event in the life of the federation,” said Noko from the LWF headquarters in Geneva.
The 12-day assembly, starting July 21 at St. Boniface Cathedral in the Manitoba capital, had been expecting more than 800 participants for the once-every-six-years deliberations. The LWF acts on behalf of its 136 affiliated church bodies in 76 countries on matters such as interfaith and ecumenical relations. Participants from 51 of those countries were required to obtain visas to enter Canada.
Two letters from the LWF, dated May 29 and June 27, were delivered to Canada’s minister for citizenship and immigration, Dennis Coderre, but by July 4 the government had not responded, said Noko. A resident of Canada himself for a six-year period in his ministry, Noko, a native of Zimbabwe, said the visa denials were inconsistent with Canada’s solid international reputation.
An LWF statement said a Czech passport holder, a Kenyan and two Colombians originally rejected were now understood to have been granted visas. But still lacking visas were participants from Bangladesh, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Philippines, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Tanzania–and the total seemed likely to rise.
“The denial of participation to so many delegates from the South severely impacts the effectiveness and credibility of our gathering,” Noko wrote in June. “Minister Coderre should be aware of the divisive impact the visa denials would have on our assembly,” Noko said. “It would segregate the Lutheran communion and work against our commitment to heal divisions between the North and South, East and the West, women and men, and the young and the elders.”
Since September 11, 2001, many nations have tightened rules on non-citizens entering their countries for fear of terrorist activities. Noko said the LWF had given “our guarantees” to Canadian embassies of full financial responsibility for all assembly participants and their return home.
Coincidentally, the concern by northern-based Christian leaders for churches in the south was echoed July 2 by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at the closing session of the 12th assembly of the Conference of European Churches in Trondheim, Norway. It is not enough, Williams said, for “the prosperous world and its trading systems” to bring southern nations into markets to make life better. “There has to be some way of saying, ‘We are hungry and thirsty for your welfare; we are not ourselves, not fully fly human, without you,'” he said.
The last LWF assembly was in Hong Kong in July 1997, a few days after the territory returned to Chinese rule. The authorities granted entry visas to all of the participants. Aside from ecumenical relations, the Lutheran World Federation can act on behalf of member churches in humanitarian assistance, theological dialogues, human rights issues and coordinating mission and development work.
When the upcoming tenth assembly votes on a new president, Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is expected to be the nominee from North American Lutherans. The decision to nominate a reluctant Hanson was made in January by North American delegates in a preassembly consultation. If elected, Hanson said, the six-year LWF term would mean he would need help to “reconfigure” some of his primary duties as ELCA leader.
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