Middle Eastern pilgrims clear hurdles to attend World Youth Day

Panama City, Panama, Jan 28, 2019 / 11:04 am (CNA).- For many pilgrims at the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama City, attending the international event was a simple as signing up and finding money to fund the trip.

But other youth – including several pilgrims from the Middle East – told CNA that they faced significant challenges getting visas in their home countries to come to the event.

Nabil, a pilgrim from Pakistan, said he and his Christian peers face many challenges at home, and the process of getting to Panama was made extremely difficult by the Pakistani government. His group was detained by immigration authorities in Pakistan on Jan. 19, he said, because Pakistani passports list the holder’s religion.

“As soon as they figured out that we are of the Christian faith, they tried to detain us,” Nabil told EWTN Vatican.

“As soon as they saw we were Christian, they tried to stop us from going to Panama to attend a religious event. So we made a video [of the immigration authorities], and we told them that if they don’t let us go then we will put the video on YouTube; and they got afraid, and they let us come to Panama. So that is just one example of how we are being discriminated against because of our Christian religion.”  

Nabil and his group were fortunate compared to some Pakistanis. Vatican News reported Jan. 25 that a group of 14 pilgrims from Pakistan was detained and blocked from leaving the country completely at Lahore airport by Pakistan’s Department for Immigration Office, meaning they not only missed World Youth Day but lost nearly $1,800 each that they had paid for their plane tickets.

“In our country, the Christians are persecuted because of our faith,” Nabil commented.

“Our churches have been bombed; our women have been forced to convert to another religion.”

Nabil mentioned the widely publicized case of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, and remains in great danger from violent mobs in Pakistan despite being acquitted of the charges in Oct. 2018.

“Our faith is something worth dying for,” he said. “But since we’ve come to Panama, we have received a whole bunch of love from the Panamanian people. I must say the the Panamanian people are the most beautiful and the most loving people I have ever seen in my entire life.”

Another Pakistani group told EWTN Vatican that they had to pay the immigration authorities a bribe in order to leave the country.

Fati George, a WYD volunteer from Kirkuk, Iraq, told CNA that he also faced challenges getting to Panama. He and two other members of his delegation from Iraq had difficulty obtaining visas to leave the country; they had to go through the visa process three times.  

“We decided to take up the challenge, and our church [in Iraq] has been helping us,” he said.

George said back home in Iraq he has a lot of friends who are Catholic, but that “it’s not like Europe”: they are not able to practice their faith as openly as they would like in the Muslim-dominated society.

Despite this, he said the fact that he and his peers are able to practice their Christian faith in Iraq is a good thing for their community and country.

“[We Christians] are like salt,” he said, with a big smile. “You can’t see it, but you can taste it.”

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