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What's Going on Here?

March 19, 1989

The Rt. Rev. Dinis Sengulane, Anglican bishop of Lebombo, Mozambique, found clearing customs at Los Angeles International Airport unexpectedly difficult last Sunday even though he was wearing the clothing appropriate to his office, and his passport bore confirmation of his religious office and visa stamps showing two previous U.S. visits.

He said he was subjected to intense interrogation by four customs agents who appeared skeptical that he was indeed a bishop. He offered to show them a letter of invitation from three Episcopal churches in Pasadena, San Marino and San Gabriel, where he was to address a Lenten series, but they were not interested. Apparently dissatisfied with his responses, despite fluent English learned when he trained for the ministry in England, and a thorough check of his baggage, the customs agents took him to a small interrogation room, had him remove shoes and coat, spread-eagled him in a corner and subjected him to what he described as"a search all over my body." He was released after signing a declaration that nothing had been taken from him.

"Do I have the face of a criminal?" he asked. "Perhaps they were influenced by movies on TV of smugglers dressed as clergy. Or was it my country, Mozambique, because the government is Marxist? Or was it racism?"

But then he paused with a new concern. "I would be badly hurt to know that, as a result of my speaking of this, the agents might lose their jobs or not be promoted. That is not my intention." He had yet another concern about the agents. "It does damage to the person doing it if he thinks it is the normal way of doing things, when you do something that is worse than what you are trying to prevent."

A public affairs officer at U.S. Customs said body search is "very common," adding that "only those with a diplomatic visa are exempt."

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