BY CHRISTINA WHITE
A GROWING row over visa applications is threatening to overshadow preparations for next month's World Youth Day in Toronto.
The Ecuadorian Bishops' Conference reported this week that 60 per cent of visa requests from young people in Ecuador had been rejected by the Canadian Embassy in Quito and its consulate in Guayaquil.
The Canadian authorities have cited lack of funds, lack of travelling expenses and no travelling record as reasons for turning down the applications.
In Peru almost one-third' of the 300 requests for visas have been turned down on similar grounds. In Colombia, 50 per cent of requests for visas have been denied.
The perceived bias against South America has been matched in the Indian subcontinent. As The Catholic Herald reported this month, hundreds of visa applications from Bangaldesh have also been refused.
Church authorities there have registered their concerns with the Canadian High Commission in Dhaka.
A spokesman for World Youth Day in Toronto said that local dioceses were responsible for handling visa issues with the Canadian government. "Ultimately the Canadian government decides who gets into Canada and who doesn't and we respect that," he said.
But Church and youth workers have voiced their disgust. Manuel Sarria, a youth minister in Ecuador, said young people had made great efforts to raise funds for the Toronto trip.
"Many of these kids have made tremendous efforts to pay their trip to Toronto, and none of them are trying to hide they are not wealthy people. All they want is to see the Pope," he said.
About 350,000 people are likely to join the Pope in Toronto, Canada, between July 23 and July 28, but organisers had hoped that 750,000 would turn up. The United States has the largest delegation, with more than 46,000 people, followed by Canada with nearly 29,000. Italy has more than 12,000 registrants.
World Youth Day is held every two years and the last one, held in Rome in August 2000, the Jubilee Year, attracted a record two million people.
Organisers of this year's youth day blame fears of travel in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the high cost of travel from other continents to North America as a reason for the failure to attract pilgrims.