No51 September 2002.4
World Youth Day 2002
Between promises and reality
From 18 to 28 July, Toronto, and different regions of Canada, celebrated World Youth Days. This is an event which takes place every two years and brings together Christians from more than 150 countries. This years celebration was exceptional in that Pope John Paul II came to meet the young pilgrims. Before the actual celebration in Toronto, the participants visited different parts of Canada in order to meet families and local Churches, which wanted to show them the reality of their particular part of the country. The visitors in turn shared their faith with their hosts and spoke of life in their own countries. But it was of course in the great assembly of Toronto that the young people were able to give full expression to their faith and their convictions with glad and joyful hearts. For a whole week they split up into different groups to discuss important subjects like catechesis and to hold prayerful and cultural celebrations in which they expressed their faith in their own cultural categories. The assembly concluded with a Mass celebrated by the Holy Father himself during which he invited the pilgrims to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
For the Missionaries of Africa who work in the Africa Centre in Montreal, the event was a privileged occasion for meeting young Africans over a period of four days and for showing them our city. In this way new friendships were formed. With the help of different African visitors to our Centre, and of local pastoral leaders, we prepared a whole programme of activities which embraced personal encounters, times of prayer, and visits to significant places. We were glad to welcome the young people, and we appreciated the opportunity of accompanying them and making friends with them.
Some days before the opening of the World Youth Days, however, we learned that a number of young Africans who had planned to come to Montreal had not received visas from the Canadian government, although they had been officially registered and had followed all the required procedures: registration with the Pontifical Council for the Laity, organization of their journey by a recognized group in their country, application to the national office of the World Youth Day. But obstacles remained, and in particular the demands of the Canadian embassies in Africa were often unrealistic. The young people had to declare their financial situation by producing bank statements and employment documents, and this was of course impossible for the eighty per cent of the young people who are peasant cultivators and have never had either a bank account or recognized employment. Poverty was thus turned into an excuse for refusing a visa. Many Africans, from Mali in particular, simply submitted and did not ask for visas. Others however persisted. Filled with faith and hope, they prepared to take part in what they looked forward to as one of the most enriching experiences of fraternity and solidarity which they could ever hope to have.
According to a Quebec newspaper of 30 July, there were 26,000 applications for visas. 6,000 were rejected, and a large proportion of these were from Africa: more than 300 Ugandans, 200 Congolese, 156 Burundians, 60 Guineans, 12 from Sierra Leone, and a number from Togo. Several priests and religious from Guinea and Benin manifested their disapproval of the conduct of the Canadian embassies by refusing to go to Canada. It was their way of expressing solidarity with their compatriots who, they felt, had been unfairly discriminated against.
This state of affairs is certainly disturbing for those of us who know young Africans. The object of this meeting was to enable people from different cultures to share their faith, to build fraternity between peoples, and to establish a culture of peace in a world which is certainly in need of it. Why then were hundreds of Africans discriminated against and barred from taking part?
It might look like another example of the tendency to abandon the Africans to themselves and leave them to their own devices. Yet at the last G-8 summit and during the preceding weeks, our Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, missed no opportunity of underlining his special interest in this forgotten continent. He committed himself, in the name of his government, to do everything possible to bring Africa into the modern world and to put an end to its isolation. He uttered a passionate appeal to Canadians and to the rest of the world to allow Africa to take its proper place at the great banquet of globalisation. He spoke of the worlds responsibility for the Africans, and urged that their continent should occupy a place at the top of the summits agenda. Such utterances make perfect sense in the context of Canadas policy of multiculturalism. Canada is, and has always been, the model of an open nation which welcomes the riches of every culture. Our newly-arrived immigrants have always felt this, and Canada has long been a leading voice in debates concerning mutual relations and dialogue between different peoples. There was therefore nothing new in the position adopted by Prime Minister Chrétien.
What does however seem new is that the actions of officialdom do not correspond to the Prime Ministers words. It is not possible to avoid the suspicion that the refusal of visas to young Africans who wanted to attend the World Youth Days in Toronto was based on a fear that these young people would seize the opportunity to flee from war and poverty in their own countries and disappear into the Canadian population.
It is true that some visitors from Africa did decide not to go home. According to the Catholic Information Service Africa of 20 August 2002, ninety young Ugandans applied for refugee status. These however constituted the exception which proved the rule. The civil servants who dealt with the applications for entry visas by these young Africans refused to accept that the majority of the applicants simply wanted to share with us their joys, their hopes and their sufferings. The officials preferred to believe that the Africans only wanted to come to the Youth Rally in Canada because they were looking for a better life. They regarded the applicants in general as liars whose only aim was to get to Canada and disappear. In truth it is only reasonable to believe that a certain number of these young Africans did aspire to live in a peaceful country where they could construct a decent future for themselves.
At the same time one may surely ask whether it is possible to approve of the xenophobia which has gripped the West since the events of 11 September 2001. Is it right to be so suspicious that one can have no confidence in the young people who in fact represent the hope of the worlds future? We know only too well that we live in a world in which politicians and businessmen indulge in all kinds of corrupt practices in order to enrich themselves. The young people of today represent the best hope for the world of tomorrow. These young Africans in particular are refusing to live in war and injustice. During the Youth Days in Toronto, they, like their contemporaries from all other parts of the world, wanted to give expression to their joy and to have an opportunity to experience the fraternity of a common faith with the young of the whole human family. Their aspirations and hopes were frustrated by a narrow and mean-spirited bureaucracy.
The worlds media thrives on bad news, and it is not surprising that they generate pessimism and cynicism among their readers and viewers. We hear of fifty countries which are involved in war; of the third drought in Africa in less than thirty years, bringing with it famine, disease and death; of the terrorism of one side which provokes vengeance on the other; of financial scandals perpetrated by greedy manipulators which threaten the very foundations of Western economic structures. Meanwhile the threat of terrorism leads political leaders to spend colossal sums on arms and internal defence as a protection against dangers which may never be realized. Part of these defence structures are the new rules of immigration designed to keep out newcomers perceived as dangerous. Would it not be better to invest more in offering hospitality to foreigners who only want to share with others that which is the greatest wealth of us all, our common humanity?
Our world is a world in disarray, and we do not know where it is heading. Nevertheless, it does not take a genius to recognize that the only way ahead is for men and women to work together to develop a culture of peace. They can only do this by becoming people of courage and boldness, people who are prepared to tell the truth, cost what it may. As things are at present, the disinherited of the earth who cry out against injustice are treated with contempt, as people who do not want to work, perhaps, or as terrorists and warmongers. The truth is that we do not know our neighbours and we are unwilling to take a single step in order to find out how they are living. When the poor finally rise up and demand a share of what is on our plate, then perhaps, instead of listening to the cries of the excluded and the marginalized, we shall react by saying that what our world needs is peace.
There is a saying in Africa that we become what our ancestors were before us. What kind of a world do we wish to bequeath to those who are coming after us? I can hear still the hymns of hope which the youth of the world are singing. They want to build a world at peace. It was the message of their great meeting in Toronto. We can only express our regret to our African brothers and sisters who were prevented from coming and making their own contribution to this great hymn. They wanted to share with us their beauty and their richness, their dynamism and their music, just as they do in our annual festivals in which they liberate us from our daily cares and teach us to dream. When our leaders closed our doors to these hundreds of young Africans, they seemed to be telling the rest of the world that those young people were no more than passive spectators of the great drama of globalisation.
Jean-François Bégin, of the Afrika Centre
Michel Fortin, of the African Documentation Centre,
31 July 2002.
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