President Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday said the issue involving 50 Mormons here without permits could have been “better handled” as there was no need for the missionaries to be rounded up and taken into custody even though the police had a right to do so.
“I didn’t think, frankly speaking, that we needed to round people up. It is not the image of Guyana that we want to portray, particularly where it concerns religious people,” the President told reporters yesterday at the opening of the new East La Penitence Health Centre.
“But the police have to enforce the immigration laws of our country. We are an open society, we are very welcoming but we also have laws,” he added.
Last week Wednesday the police detained 50 missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had them in custody for hours. They were only released after a meeting was held with the President and they were then given 30 days to leave the country.
The PNCR has severely criticised the government over the handling of the issue.
Jagdeo said when he learnt of the matter the missionaries were already in police custody and he immediately invited some of their representatives to a meeting.
Simultaneously, the President said, he had the police over to brief him on the issue and he saw the records from the police that they were all “here in violation of some immigration law, either overstaying their allotted time in Guyana or not having work permits which is a requirement of our laws.
“I did not want to get too involved in the administration of immigration law… I made it clear to them that in another country the political authorities would stay away from immigration matters because once you violate those you have to pay the penalties,” Jagdeo said.
He said he instructed that the people go back to their regular business but that they have one month to voluntarily leave the country. This does not mean that they cannot return to Guyana. However, he said he told the elders he met with that they would have to sort out the immigration issues from abroad.
“They asked if everyone had to leave and I said ‘no only those who were in violation of their immigration status’ so there would still be Mormons living and working in Guyana. But those who are in violation would have to leave and then seek to regularise their status.”
And the Head of State said that “at some point in time” at a country level there needs to be discussions about missionaries, “I think many people have been raising this from different areas and I have not addressed it as yet. I haven’t even thought about it. But you know if we are going to allow 50 missionaries from the Middle East to come too, Islamic missionaries and if every church in Guyana wants to bring 50 or 100 missionaries, with so many denominations, you could potentially have difficulties.”
However, the President said it is not a decision that the government alone would take as “it has to be done in consultations with our religious community.”
And like the Ministry of Home Affairs, he denied reports that the church members were held because they were involved in spying activities.
“I don’t know what they are going to spy on because we don’t have much military secrets or anything else,” the President said yesterday.
In a press release the ministry had said that “… acting in accordance with the Laws of Guyana i.e. the Immigration Act Chap 14:02 [the ministry] issued letters denying work permits and extensions of stay to 50 missionaries belonging to the said church. They were ordered to leave the jurisdiction.” It added that efforts are being made to determine the whereabouts of 13 others. The release had also said that replacements of the missionaries would be allowed into the country and that the church’s leaders had agreed to such an approach.
Prior to their release the missionaries through their lawyer, Nigel Hughes, had moved to the High Court which resulted in an order issued by Chief Justice (ag) Ian Chang, “… restraining the defendant… from arresting and or detaining the applicants for the purposes of removing the applicants from Guyana before the hearing and determination of the Appeals filed by the plaintiffs [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]…”
The matter was adjourned to September 16.