(BWA) – As many as 1,000 people who had registered for the Baptist World Alliance's Congress this year were unable to attend because they were denied visas by the United States, leaders of the global Baptist organization said.
BWA general secretary Neville Callam, left, and outgoing BWA president David Coffey speak to reporters on the first day of the Baptist World Congress. (Photo: BWA)
Security-conscious Americans are increasingly prohibiting entry to foreign nationals attending religious conferences and that is making it difficult for global Baptist meetings to be held in the United States, the leaders said at a press conference at the beginning of the 20th Baptist World Congress.
"People want to come to the United States. It's a wonderful place," said Neville Callam, general secretary of the Falls Church, Va.-based BWA. "But it's difficult when general secretaries and presidents [of national Baptist conventions and unions] have saved to come to a conference and they are denied a visa. And there's nothing anyone can do.
"Of course, states have to protect themselves," Callam said. "We must take that into account. But it would be very unfortunate if the U.S. had to be eliminated from the list of places to hold meetings."
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Countries in Africa and Asia were the hardest hit by the visa denials, according to Emmett Dunn, the BWA's meetings and conferences director. All 87 delegates from Angola were denied visas, Dunn said, as was 40 percent of Nigeria's 246-member delegation.
Only two of Sierra Leone's 27 registered delegates were granted visas, and only 24 percent of the more than 100 registrants from Bangladesh received permission to enter the U.S. Other hard-hit countries were Ghana, Liberia and India.
"We live in a post 9-11 world," said Dunn, acknowledging heightened security concerns.
While a fragile economy and Hawaii's distance from centers of Baptist population both contributed to a smaller attendance, visa denials unquestionably played a role and left many potential travelers frustrated – as many expressed in emails sent to BWA headquarters in Falls Church.
"We paid our registration fees, we paid also our travel ticket, we have done our reservations ... really we lost more money, we're very sorry," wrote one of the Angolans whose visa was denied.
"After showing all the required documents ... several of us were rejected today for no specific reason," wrote a delegate from Sierra Leone.
Callam said other global Christian bodies, including the worldwide organizations of Seventh-day Adventists and the Reformed churches, have been impacted by American visa denials, sparking wide-ranging debate about the issue.