By Kamran Chaudhry
A group of Pakistani Catholics were twice stopped from traveling to the World Youth Day event recently held in Panama after being accused of human trafficking and drug smuggling.
The ten pilgrims denied the unsubstantiated allegations and church officials have backed them up.
Officials from the Federal Investigation Agency stopped them from boarding a Turkish airlines flight bound for Panama at Lahore international airport first on Jan. 21.
The young Catholics tried again three days later but were again blocked and verbally harassed by officials.
Asghar Nazir, a Catholic teacher in Lahore, said officials told them that the World Youth Day was only an excuse for human trafficking and marijuana smuggling.
“We were asked questions about Pope Francis and humiliated despite producing travel verifications and supporting documents,” said Nazir.
“After making us wait for three hours, they tore the boarding passes up right in front of our eyes,” said the 33-year-old.
“My dreams of meeting the Pope have been crushed,” he said. “I only wanted to grow more in gospel and spirituality and share my experience with local religious minorities.”
Nazir took out a bank loan to fund the pilgrimage and he said the non-refundable expenses have now jeopardized his marriage plans for next month.
Catholic Church officials condemned the harassment by the immigration authorities.
Father Yaqoob Yousaf from the Catholic Youth Ministry in Lahore Archdiocese said what the pilgrims experienced was blatant discrimination.
“The pilgrims had valid visas and Church approval. Catholic youth in Pakistan already faces challenges of getting into higher education and obtaining jobs. This adds to their disappointment,” Father Yousaf said.
“A small percentage of oversees Pakistanis are Christians. Foreign visas are already a challenge for our people,” he said.
“Immigration officials often take money from Christian tourism groups. Strong lobbying with foreign ambassadors is needed.”
Last year the Irish embassy denied visas to about 10,000 families who applied from all over the country to attend the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.
According to Henley Passport Index, which periodically measures the access each country’s travel document affords, the Pakistani passport remains the fifth-worst passport globally, offering its holders visa-free access to just 33 countries.
The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees equal rights for all citizen irrespective of their religion or belief. Christians, however, insist that they have long faced both deep-seated prejudice and institutionalized discrimination because of their faith.
World Youth Day was held from Jan. 22-27 with the theme of “I’m the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word (Lk. 1,38).”