Hostile immigration policies threaten pilgrimage to Iona, birthplace of Christianity

The pilgrims on the trail and stopping for prayers.  Picture: Robert Perry Sc
The pilgrims on the trail and stopping for prayers. Picture: Robert Perry Sc
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Religious leaders have warned that the UK’s increasingly hostile immigration policies threaten the centuries-old tradition of global pilgrimage to the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland.

The Iona Community said that tougher restrictions and the cost of visas for people wanting to volunteer or visit the Hebridean holy isle already made it virtually impossible for anyone from continents like Africa to come.

The pilgrims on the trail and stopping for prayers.   Picture: Robert Perry Sc

The pilgrims on the trail and stopping for prayers. Picture: Robert Perry Sc

Now they feared that ongoing uncertainty over Brexit could prevent or put off pilgrims coming to the Hebridean island of Iona from across Europe too.

That risk made survival harder for both the Christian community and the wider 170-strong island population, they warned, whose livelihoods also relied heavily on Iona’s iconic world status.

The tiny isle off Mull has attracted countless pilgrims since St Columba arrived in the sixth century to found what became one the most influential monasteries in the British Isles.

Reverend Kathy Galloway, co-leader of the Iona Community - the Christian group established in the 1930s to continue St Columba’s mission - said: “We’ve always had a few volunteers from Africa and Asia but it’s almost impossible now.

Pilgrims make their way across Iona.  Picture: Robert Perry

Pilgrims make their way across Iona. Picture: Robert Perry

“And as for volunteers from Europe, we just don’t know what will happen with Brexit or how we will manage. Having already contracted from the rest of the world, (by making it increasingly difficult for foreigners to obtain permission to visit, work or volunteer) if we’re now going to contract from mainland Europe as well it’s dreadful. It does not sit well with the faith community.”

“It would (now) take us two years to get one volunteer from Malawi or Kenya and it’s become so costly that we can’t do it (as the Christian community can’t afford to meet the costs of visas for prospective pilgrims).

“It makes Iona a less diverse place and makes it harder for people to make pilgrimages. Many of the people coming to volunteer on our programmes are on a pilgrimage.”

It was also starting to impact on guests, she added: “A 60 year old Kenyan grandmother who had been here before and wanted to come on a week’s visit on a tourist visa was refused entry. She’s a respected member of her church community and we had a member of the community sponsoring her. Even for a tourist visa you have to provide so many months of bank statements now. They (UK authorities) just don’t want to let anyone in.”

Thousands of people visit Iona each year, with the religious community estimating that about one in ten are on some kind of pilgrimage.

Around 100 volunteers each year come from around the world – around half from continental Europe - to join regular programmes ranging from one week to around four months between March and October to help with the day to day running of the historic abbey and wider site.

A Home Office spokesman said: “Each year the UK welcomes millions of legitimate visitors and thousands of volunteers from across the world and will continue to do so in the future. There are no country-specific policies for volunteers applying for a visa.”

Each visa application was considered on its merits and visa fees for charity and religious workers were lower than most other categories of visa, he added.

The Iona Community is nearing the end of a major appeal for a multimillionpound restoration of the abbey which will allow it to accommodate volunteers and visitors year-round, expanding its role in supporting the economy further. Currently it is too cold for people to stay on the site over the winter.