SHE was promised that she would be allowed to travel to Scotland to attend a key church conference.
However, the first female pastor in the Arab Christian world will be absent from the General Assembly today after she was turned back from the airport on Thursday night.
Rev Rola Sleiman had been told a visa refusal was overturned by officials of the Home Office.
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The minister, who is based in Lebanon, had planned to travel to Edinburgh for the annual Kirk meeting as a representative of the National Evangelical (Protestant) Church of Syria and Lebanon.
However, she was left feeling “humiliated” after clerks disputed her intentions, saying they did not believe she would return or refrain from undertaking “prohibited activities”.
The u-turn was made on Tuesday, when the British Embassy in Amman in Jordan announced it would grant a visa waiver in a decision made one day after the Church of Scotland made the situation public.
Yesterday they said it was unclear why Sleiman had been denied access to her flight from Beirut.
They also revealed that another international delegate, Rev James Makuei Choul of the Presbyterian Church in South Sudan, had also been refused a visa.
Speaking on the eve of the opening of the General Assembly, its principal clerk, the Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, said: “This has been a regrettable situation. Sleiman was forced to make a two hour journey from Beirut airport to her home in Tripoli last night after being turned back by officials.
“We accept the genuine efforts Home Office officials have made in recent days to overturn the original refusal to grant Sleiman a visa, and it is unfortunate that the measures put in place were not sufficient to allow Sleiman to board her flight.
“We had hoped to welcome Sleiman to our gathering on Saturday and hear first-hand the challenges facing the Christian community in the Middle East. It is a matter of real sorrow this will no longer be possible.”
Last night the Home Office said arrangements had been made to “facilitate Reverend Sleiman’s entry to the UK”, with this information “relayed in full to the airline”.
However, appealing to immigration officials, Chalmers went on: “We have also just learned our delegate from South Sudan has been refused his visa to attend. This is a particular disappointment to me, given the continuing efforts I am engaging in to build peace in this young and troubled nation.
“I would like to urge the Home Office to review its visa process to ensure the United Kingdom’s international reputation as a place of welcome is not diminished.”
More than 730 commissioners will take part in the annual Kirk summit at the Assembly Hall on the Mound, with more than 150 people from other organisations also attending.
The programme includes reports from the World Mission Council, which works with overseas groups and was set to cover the costs of Sleiman’s eight-day stay.
In her initial rejection letter, received on May 8, Syrian passport holder Sleiman was told: “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.”
A Kirk spokesperson said she had been assured travel would now go ahead, but was not issued with any documentation to prove this. When she arrived for her flight, the pioneering minister, who dubbed the original refusal “absurd”, was told she was not allowed to board.
It is now hoped that she will attend a Women in the World Church event in the capital in September.
In a statement for delegates, she says she is “disappointed” not to be there and offers prayers for supporters, saying the Kirk “worked hard to try to get me to the General Assembly but it was not to be at present”.
On the South Sudanese delegate, Reverend James Makuei Choul of the Home Office said: “We do not routinely comment on individual cases. Each application is considered on its individual merits based on the evidence provided and in line with the UK’s Immigration Rules.”