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32 Indian Catholic pilgrims 'missing' in New Zealand

July 14, 2008 19:28 IST

Thirty-two Indian pilgrims have gone missing during a stopover in Auckland en route to Sydney to see the Pope at the World Youth Day celebrations, sending immigration officials into a tizzy.

The missing 32 are among a group of 220 Indian worshippers given a one-month visitor visa this month, Labour Department officials said in Auckland, adding they had planned to leave for Australia on Tuesday.

The Indians had gone missing at various times over the past four to five days and though their visas remained valid, authorities said they wanted to ensure all of the pilgrims stuck to their plan to leave New Zealand.

Immigration officials said they, along with the Auckland-based Catholic Church, were trying to find the pilgrims who absconded from the church billets and homes they were staying and do not have their passports with them, Radio New Zealand reported.

New Zealand Catholic church spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer said the pilgrims arrived in New Zealand early last week, where they were met by local Catholic parish representatives.

"Some of them cleared Customs and sort of disappeared and nobody saw them," Freer said, adding that there was no reason to believe that they were not 'genuine' pilgrims.

"In terms of the law it's not illegal, but it's certainly most extraordinary and most disappointing," she was quoted as saying by the radio.

Pope Benedict XVI, 81, will join the festivities on Thursday for the World Youth Day, which begins on Tuesday and is expected to attract more than 200,000 participants from across the world, the largest public event in Australia after the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Natasha Chaku in Melbourne
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