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 CNS Story:

WYD-IRAQIS Jul-17-2008 (570 words) xxxi

For some, absence of Iraqis dampens joy of welcoming pope to WYD

By Dan McAloon and Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

SYDNEY, Australia (CNS) -- For some participants at World Youth Day, the joy of welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the World Youth Day celebration July 17 was dampened by the absence of a Chaldean Catholic delegation from Iraq.

Salina Hasham, a World Youth Day employee, has been working for months trying to get the 170-member Iraqi delegation to Sydney.

At first, it seemed the Australian government would not issue any visas to the group, Hasham said. Then 10 visas were granted and, finally, a total of 25 visas were approved.

But as of July 17, she said, "they are stuck in Iraq. They have been at the airport for days, but flight after flight has been canceled."

"It appears forces inside Iraq do not want them to come," she said.

Hasham said the Iraqi youths were committed to celebrating World Youth Day even if they have to do it by praying together at home and organizing their own events.

"But the 25 (who received visas) are still keen to represent their country in Sydney," she said.

Hasham expressed hope that they will arrive before the July 20 closing Mass.

Perhaps no one was as disappointed as the Iraqi and Iranian Chaldean Catholics now living in Australia and New Zealand.

Stifen Kako, 22, of Sydney, said he was saddened that he would not be reunited with Fadi, a boyhood friend from Baghdad, Iraq.

"I last saw him in 2002 just before my family fled Iraq. Fadi is one of the pilgrims who was coming to World Youth Day, but at the last minute we have learned the Australians would only issue visas to the priests and religious," he said.

Wasem Hermiz, 28, one of the Sydney Chaldeans, said he had been told that the Iraqi pilgrims had been refused visas because it was suspected that they would seek political asylum in Australia.

The Iraqi delegation "first became aware there was a problem two weeks ago. They are devastated that it couldn't be resolved. They have done a lot of preparations for World Youth Day in Sydney -- and now it has come to nothing," he said.

Hermiz said the group included priests, religious brothers and sisters, and at least one bishop.

While Hasham said those with a visa still were trying to get out of Iraq, Hermiz said he had heard that "faced with the dilemma of only some in the group coming to Australia, they all declined to come."

"They will be carrying on in the World Youth Day spirit in Iraq with a week of reflections and prayers. They have asked all Catholics to please remember them in their prayers," he said.

In Sydney, Bishop Djibrail Kassab of the Chaldean diocese serving Australia and New Zealand worked closely with World Youth Day organizers and the Australian government to try to get the entire Iraqi delegation to Sydney. Bishop Kassab's diocese includes about 36,000 expatriate Iraqi and Iranian Chaldeans.

Hermiz said: "The bishop has sent many assurances to the Australian government regarding the good character of the pilgrims and their willingness to return to Iraq. We put into place a support network for their stay in Sydney, so we are shocked that these efforts have failed."

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


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