Martin Wanjala was eager to represent the 1,000 members of his Eastern Africa churches at a global conference of Reformed churches in Grand Rapids. He never got the chance.
Wanjala was denied a visa by the U.S. embassy in Kampala, Uganda, to attend the founding meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). Despite having the required documentation, including his bank account, marriage, and ordination certificates, Wanjala was told he lacked "sufficient ties" that ensured he would return to Uganda.
"I left the interview room a very disappointed, humiliated, and disgraced person," said Wanjala, general secretary of the Christian Reformed Church of East Africa.
Wanjala was one of 74 participants denied visas to the mid-June gathering of the WCRC, a new affiliation of 230 Reformed denominations from 108 countries. Seventeen percent of the group's 436 visa applicants were denied.
The denials angered WCRC leaders who say they represent a larger problem for international Christian initiatives. The Baptist World Alliance said 1,000 of the 5,000 registrants to its World Congress in Hawaii this July were denied visas.
"There's a growing concern around the world that it's more and more difficult to hold Christian gatherings in Europe and North America," said Clifton Kirkpatrick, co-moderator of the WCRC conference. He likened the denials to excluding about 15 percent of U.S. states from representation, adding, "That's a very difficult basis on which to have meetings with integrity."
U.S. officials' main concern is that visa applicants want to stay in the country illegally, said John Echard, a State Department spokesman. "They have to convince the [interviewer] they have sufficient ties and would return to the country of residence," Echard said. He stressed that religious delegates are treated no differently than other applicants.
Many pastors, low-paid and in church-provided homes, find it hard to make a case for their return.
"How do you prove that you have the resources to want to come back when you're not paid a real high salary [and] you don't own property?" said Alan Morrison, general conference business manager for the United Methodist Church.
About 8 percent of international delegates were denied visas to the denomination's 2008 General Conference, "significantly fewer" than denials for the 2004 meeting, Morrison said. He attributed the improvement to changes made after conferring with the State Department, such as online conference information, giving delegates more-detailed invitation letters, and coaching them on interviews.
At the WCRC conference in Grand Rapids, incensed leaders planned to file a protest with the State Department. As for Wanjala, he says he's given up "anything to do" with the United States. "Getting a visa to [the] U.S. is like going to heaven."
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