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U.S. ‘broke commitment’ on visas for global church gathering

June 28, 2010

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.

The United States has been criticized for denying visas to 10 percent of the voting delegates due to attend a global meeting of Reformed churches in Michigan.

As the opening worship of the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches began on June 18, a banner stating, “In honor of the missing 73,” was brought to the front of the assembly hall at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids.

This referred to 46 voting delegates, as well as other participants, from Africa, Asia and Latin America, who had been refused visas, the Rev. Susan Davies of the U.S. United Church of Christ told the worshippers.

“As a citizen of this country, I am outraged that United States consulates have refused access to an international ecumenical gathering because they feared terrorism and illegal immigration,” said Davies.

The banner has stood at the front of the main hall throughout deliberations of the first meeting of the new worldwide Protestant grouping.

Organizers said a total of 450 voting delegates were originally due to attend the June 18-28 meeting, which marks the merger of the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Grand Rapids-based Reformed Ecumenical Council.

At a June 18 media conference, the Rev. Ofelia Ortega, an outgoing WARC vice-president from Cuba, said that the visa denials for people from the Global South would affect the decision making of the Grand Rapids meeting.

The outgoing WARC president, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, said similar concerns about visa denials had been raised several weeks earlier at an international mission conference in Edinburgh.

In 2003, officials of the Lutheran World Federation expressed outrage that 51 would-be-participants for its once-every-six-years assembly in Winnipeg, mostly from poor nations, were denied visas by Canadian authorities despite last-ditch appeals to the government.

“It is making it more and more difficult for us in the Northern Hemisphere — Europe, the United States, Canada — to hold global gatherings with integrity,” said Kirkpatrick.

Outgoing REC president the Rev. Peter Borgdorff told journalists that the visa denials appeared “very arbitrary.” He also said that U.S. federal authorities had “broken a commitment” to organizers because they had promised help if there were denials by U.S. consulates or embassies abroad.

"When we went to them for help, we got turned away," Borgdorff said.

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