While the Catholic Church has the advantage of having its own country, albeit a not especially big one, for immigration purposes it now appears that the Government treats the Church – or at least the Sydney archdiocese – as a sovereign state.

Yesterday Teresa Gambaro, the Assistant Immigration Minister, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Cardinal George Pell agreeing to waive visa charges for tourists (“pilgrims”, as the press release glowingly identifies them) coming for the Catholic World Youth Day in 2008. A special, simplified visa process is also to be put in place.

The notion of a Catholic World Youth Day is splendidly ironic, given the Church’s extensive history of protecting paedophile priests. But it appears to have now joined the list of “Big Events” for which cities feel the need to bid, complete with the usual implausible assurances of massive tourist revenue.

George Pell – famous for his warmly tolerant views of other religions – has tried to assure Sydneysiders that they will not have to endure the sort of disruption occasioned by APEC, although the city will be brought to a halt on a Friday evening while one of the Church’s grislier rituals, the sado-masochistic Stations of the Cross, is carried out at a number of locations. There’s also an ongoing feud with horse trainers at Randwick, complicated by the (presumably not divinely-ordained) EI outbreak.

Both John Howard and NSW Apologist-In-Chief Morris Iemma have eagerly jumped on the Youth Day bandwagon, turning up to welcome a symbolic giant piece of wood for it back in July. But the Federal Government’s eagerness to please this denomination seems to go much further.

One wonders what risk assessment has been undertaken about the simplified visa procedures to be put in place, including what proportion of the expected 140,000 “pilgrims” will overstay or seek to remain; where the revenue lost from waiving visa fees will be made up; and most of all, what will be the basis for accessing the simplified visa process. According to Gambaro’s press release, the process can be accessed by applying online and having your application supported by your local bishop. So Australia not merely now has a sectarian visa process, its administration has been outsourced to ecclesiastical officials in other countries.

One suspects an Islamic World Youth Day would not attract quite the same generosity from this Government. At the very least, they wouldn’t be letting imams overseas determine who gets to come.

Crikey contacted Scouts Australia to see if another gathering had received similar treatement. To the best of the organisation’s knowledge, they told Crikey, no visas or visa fee waivers were issued ahead of this year’s jamboree (20 countries, 12,000 scouts in attendance) in the Victorian town of Elmore.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey