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General Conference delegates have visa problems

 


General Conference delegates have visa problems

March 24, 2004

By Linda Bloom*

STAMFORD, Conn. (UMNS) — The participation of many international delegates at the 2004 United Methodist General Conference is in doubt because of difficulties obtaining visas to enter the United States.

General Conference, which meets April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh, is the denomination’s top legislative body. This year, about 20 percent of the 998 delegates come from the church’s central conferences — regional units in countries outside the United States.

Officials with the denomination’s Board of Global Ministries and General Council on Ministries have discovered that a large number of delegates from Africa and Asia have not obtained visas from the U.S. government.

During a March 24 session of their spring meeting in Stamford, directors of the Board of Global Ministries pledged to urge United Methodist legislators in Congress to help solve the visa problem.

Officials of the General Council on Ministries already have made contact with the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), an active United Methodist who is experienced in foreign affairs. Dan Church, the council’s chief executive, told United Methodist News Service that Lugar’s office has “graciously agreed” to help if church officials can provide specific information about the visa applicants. Church said his staff is putting together that information.

He became aware of the problem when he and Bishop Edward W. Paup, the council president, visited Africa in early March to meet with General Conference delegates. The General Council on Ministries is charged with ensuring the full participation of Central Conference delegates, he explained.

Church said he and Paup met with 96 of the 106 African delegates “and discovered virtually none of them had their visas.”

Much of the difficulty is related to U.S. embassies being unable to schedule appointments in a timely manner for the delegates. Some of the delegates also have not received all of the paperwork they need from the church. Another problem is the difficulty the delegates have in traveling to the necessary embassies.

In Nigeria, they accompanied Bishop Done Peter Dabale and 11 of the 12 Nigerian delegates to the U.S. Embassy in Lagos. “They were told they couldn’t even get appointments (to interview for visas) until May,” he reported.

Other Africans are having similar problems, the Board of Global Ministries has found. Although the Central Congo has 28 delegates, the consular office there has said it will only allocate 20 visas. Delegates from Southern Congo and North Kantanga must apply for visas in the capital city of Kinshasa, requiring travel of nearly 2,000 miles.

In Liberia, six delegates have approved visas and others are pending, with interviews scheduled through April 14. The 10 delegates from Sierra Leone must travel to the consular office in Conakry, Guinea, for appointments April 8.

Only 11 of the 38 General Conference delegates from the Philippines have received visas. Bishop Benjamin Justo of the Philippines, a Board of Global Ministries director, told that body one reason U.S. Embassy officials rejected the others was because they did not have “sufficient assets” to support themselves while in the United States. The embassy refuses to accept that the denomination pays the expenses of General Conference delegates, he added.

In general, Justo said, embassy officials assume that most Filipinos who apply for non-immigrant visas are not planning to return to their country.

Board of Global Ministries’ directors are contacting legislators to urge them to “use their influence and combine their efforts” with Lugar’s office and telephoning Ambassador-at-Large John Hanford of the Office of International Religious Freedom, U.S. State Department, to register their concern.

The board also is appealing for assistance from key leaders across the denomination and other United Methodists who can help with advocacy efforts to procure visas in a timely manner.

Anyone wishing to make contact with the Board of Global Ministries on this matter can e-mail Rena Yocom at ryocom@gbgm-umc.orgNews media contact: Linda Bloom (646)369-3759, New York,  E-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

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