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 CNS Story:

NZEALAND-DEFECT Jul-15-2008 (540 words) xxxi

Indian pilgrims disappear in New Zealand on way to WYD in Australia

By Gavin Abraham
Catholic News Service

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (CNS) -- Indian pilgrims visiting New Zealand for the Days in the Diocese program before World Youth Day missed their flights to Australia, raising suspicions they plan to try to stay illegally.

Around 4,000 pilgrims from about 20 countries stayed with host families in New Zealand's six dioceses in the days preceding World Youth Day in Sydney. But over a series of days about 35 Indians, mostly young men, left the Auckland homes in which they were staying -- some in the middle of the night.

Members of the delegation from India had been scheduled to leave Auckland July 15, but some did not arrive at the airport. They have visas to stay in New Zealand for up to 30 days but their passports are supposed to be with their coordinators.

Daljit Singh of the New Zealand Sikh Society told media that the plan originally entailed coming to New Zealand, trying to make future arrangements, going to Sydney for World Youth Day, then returning to New Zealand for as long as they wanted. New Zealand has a sizable Indian immigrant population.

But, Singh said, "they thought, 'Why can't we stay the first time rather than coming back and paying another fare?'"

Singh said he became aware of the plan when he heard of three men taking a taxi from Auckland, the country's largest city and main hub for international travel, to Tauranga, about 140 miles away.

Church officials in India have expressed shock and dismay over the news, reported the Asian church news agency UCA News.

"It is a matter of great embarrassment for the church," said Divine Word Father Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

Father Joseph told UCA News July 15 that bishops' conference officials in New Delhi were not able to contact officials of the Indian delegation to verify the details. But the priest said he regrets if a few people's mistakes create problems for the whole delegation as well as their country.

India sent a 510-member delegation, the largest group from the country to attend an international church event, to Sydney for World Youth Day. They left in different batches July 5, 6 and 7 from Chennai, Calcutta, Mumbai and New Delhi.

News reports quoted Lyndsay Freer, communications director for New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference, as telling the media no one had any inkling such a thing would happen. The reports also said New Zealand's labor department was working with the Auckland Diocese to trace the missing Indians.

Father Paul Thelakkat, spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, one of two Oriental Catholic rites based in the southern Indian state of Kerala, called the incident "a matter of disgrace for the Indian church."

"It seems those missing have apparently traveled to find some greener pastures for their life than the holy intention of participating in functions with the pope," he told UCA News. He added that the church needs to make sure it weeds out such malpractices in the future.

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Visit the Catholic News Service World Youth Day blog at http://cnswyd.wordpress.com.


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