Trailblazing Syrian minister denied entry to UK

Rola Sleiman
Rev Rola Sleiman

A controversial decision to deny a trailblazing Syrian minister a visa to visit Scotland has been branded “disturbing and mystifying”.

Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, Principal Clerk to the General Assembly, said he was “desperately disappointed” that Rev Rola Sleiman was being prevented from attending the annual gathering which starts in Edinburgh on Saturday.

The 42-year-old is the first female pastor in the Arab Christian world.

She is a representative of the National Evangelical (Protestant) Church of Syria and Lebanon and only took up a new post as a parish minister in Tripoli, Lebanon in February.

The World Mission Council of the Church of Scotland confirmed to the UK Visas and Immigration department last month that Ms Sleiman’s expenses would be covered during her eight-day stay.

But the shocked minister received a letter from the UK Government body on May 8 which stated that they were not satisfied that her income was as she claimed it to be and that the Church was going to support her financially.

The letter read: “I am not satisfied that you intend to leave the UK at the end of your proposed visit.

“Or that you will not live in the UK for extended periods through frequent or successive visits.

"Furthermore, I am not satisfied that you are genuinely seeking entry for a purpose that is permitted by the visitor routes and you will not undertake any prohibited activities."

Ms Sleiman described the decision as “absurd”.

"The mentality they have that we are eagerly wanting to leave our country using fraud reasons is humiliating," she added.

Dr Chalmers said: “We have been looking forward to receiving Rev Rola Sleiman.

“She is the first woman to be ordained in the Middle East and became pastor of her own congregation in Lebanon in February this year.

“Her contribution to our discussion on gender justice and on the situation in the Middle East would be of great significance.

“Therefore we are desperately disappointed at the refusal of the Home Office to issue a visa for Ms Sleiman and we are doing all we can to have this decision reviewed and reversed.

“It is disturbing and mystifying that the UK Visa office has denied her a visa on the basis that they do not believe the Church of Scotland is supporting her visit to Scotland, despite calling us and asking for verification, which we gave.”

John Chalmers
Very Rev Dr John Chalmers

Dr Chalmers said the Church of Scotland had invited hundreds of overseas visitors to the General Assembly over the years.

“This is the first time that our commitment to covering the costs of their stay has ever been questioned,” he added.

“We also have a 100% record of our visitors returning to their own country.

“However, time is not on our side and the fact that parliament has been dissolved and MPs are on the campaign trail is making it difficult for us to make headway.

“We remain hopeful that more senior UK Government figures will overturn this injustice and allow Ms Sleiman to participate in our General Assembly.”