The U.S. State Department is being criticized for denying visas to 1,000 Baptist delegates who were trying to enter the United States to attend the Baptist World Congress meeting in Hawaii.
The meeting, held July 29-Aug. 1, was supposed to have included delegates from around the world; but many were unable to attend because the State Department turned down their visa requests, apparently without explanation.
"To deny a thousand people seems to be excessive concern on the part of our government," said Denton Lotz, the former general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.
Lotz told FOX News Radio he met with State Dept. officials five years ago when plans were made to hold the international meeting in Hawaii July 29-Aug 1. He said he received assurances the government would work with the international Christians.
"We didn't want to hold the conference if we weren't going to be allowed to have people into it," he said. "These are very simple pastors who are doing their work in Africa, Asia, Latin America."
It turned out that nearly a fifth of the delegates were denied entry and the State Dept. refused to explain why.
Fox News Radio asked the State Department for an explanation. "Pursuant to Section 22F of the Immigration and Nationality Act, visa records are confidential and we are unable to discuss specific details of this case," State Dept. spokesman Darby Holladay responded.
That policy, however, is apparently not applied to everyone. The State Dept. was more than willing to discuss specifics of a decision to allow two Muslims with alleged ties to terrorism to enter the United States earlier this year.
Tariq Ramadan, a professor at Oxford University, was previously denied a visa because he had donated money to Hamas. Ramadan, according to The Washington Times, said he had no ties to terrorism and opposed Islamic extremism.
Adam Habib, of the University of Jonannesburg, allegedly "engaged in a terrorist activity." The Times said Habib "vigorously denied" the charge.
"Both the president and the secretary of state have made it clear that the U.S. government is pursuing a new relationship with Muslim communities based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Holladay said at the time in a written statement. "The decision was made after consultations with the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department."
The Baptists aren't the only ones having trouble. Lotz said that international members of the Mennonite, Catholic, and Seventh Day Adventist churches were denied entry into the country. Last June dozens of members of the Reformed Church were told they could not attend a meeting in Grand Rapids.
"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 the Rev. Susan Davies in an interview with Ecumenical News International.
The US Council of Catholic Bishops said they've had religious workers denied entry to the country, too.
"Yes, it is certainly more difficult because of new requirements of proof, intent, site vists to ensure you are a legitimate religious organization, all based on security and fraud concerns," said. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the USCCB.
The National Association of Evangelicals hopes the State Dept. will reexamine its policies in regards to Christian leaders.
"It's unfortunate," said Galen Carey, the NAE's director of government affairs. "We should be welcoming church leaders who want to come and attending meetings in our country. He said the Hawaii incident could "damage the reputation of the United States in other countries."
Galen suggested the problem is overworked and under-resourced consular officers. "As a result, they don't give adequate consideration to the requests," he said.
The State Dept. crackdown on religious groups could force denominations to hold future meetings outside the United States.
"Look do you want the United States to be a country that holds international religious conferences or do we have to go to Germany, Italy or some country in Africa that gives visas to delegates from all over the world," Lotz said.