Bogus bride and groom arrested in church

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The Independent Online

A bogus bride and groom were arrested at a church just moments before they were set to tie the knot, the UK Border Agency said today.

Their "best man" was also detained by immigration officials during the ceremony at a church in Salford, Greater Manchester.

The trio were part of a gang involved in staging three bogus weddings at St Paul's C of E Church in Paddington Close.

A sentencing date was set today for the best man, Nigerian Kolawole Ogunleye, 32, who was convicted of assisting unlawful immigration.

Four others are already serving jail terms ranging from 12 to 20 months for the same offence.

The Dutch bride from Ogunleye's wedding, Maria Helder, 29, and the Nigerian groom, Samuel Okoh, 32, were arrested at the church on October 27 last year by UKBA officers.

Helder had flown to Liverpool Airport the day before her "wedding" and had a return ticket to her home country the same day as her nuptials, the UKBA said.

Her friend, fellow Dutchwoman Virelly Phelipa, 28, accompanied her and was also detained for her involvement in a separate sham wedding at St Paul's.

Another man, Nigerian Abiodun Hamad, 40 was planning to get married in a third ceremony at the church when he was arrested last November.

The authorities are still hunting for Phelipa's fake Nigerian groom and Hamad's bogus Dutch wife.

Immigration minister Damian Green said: "The Government has tasked the UK Border Agency with carrying out an intense period of enforcement activity over the summer.

"We are determined to make it harder than ever for illegal immigrants to come to the UK.

"Illegal immigration puts pressure on public services, local communities and legitimate businesses at a time when this country cannot afford it.

"That's why the UK Border Agency is working to cut out illegal employment, sham marriages, bogus colleges and organised traffickers being used by foreign nationals to try and stay in the UK illegally".

Jeff Taylor, Detective Sergeant of the UK Border Agency's Manchester immigration crime team, said: "Tackling sham marriage is a top priority for us and our immigration crime teams are working hard to create a hostile environment for those who break immigration laws.

"We are working closely with the church and registrars to identify suspect marriages. Where there is evidence to suggest that a wedding may be bogus we will investigate and, where necessary, intervene to stop it happening.

"People should be under no illusion that marriage is enough to get permission to stay in the UK. It's not. The relationship has to be genuine. If it's not, couples will face prosecution or deportation."

Okoh and Hamad, who also committed identity card offences, were jailed for 20 months while Helder was sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment, said the UKBA.

Phelipa was also jailed for 12 months.

Ogunleye will be sentenced at Manchester Minshull Street Crown Court on August 31.

A Church of England spokesman said: "The Anglican marriage service states 'no one should enter into marriage lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God'.

"Therefore, while we continue to encourage those who wish to enter into genuine marriage, we have supported the Government's intention to safeguard against sham, bogus or bigamous marriage.

"However, clergy have no power to require intending couples to provide details of their immigration status. Clergy have a legal obligation to marry anyone who is resident in the parish or on the church electoral roll, irrespective of nationality.

"In the event that a priest was suspicious about a particular marriage, we would expect him/her to contact the diocesan registrar for legal advice. Immigration policy is a matter for the Government, not for the Church.

"In the meantime, we are working closely with UKBA on ways of preventing marriage in church being abused in this way. Clergy are now advised not to publish banns for parties from overseas but to refer them to the diocesan registry to apply for a common licence.

"Those who make such applications are informed that their documents and other information may be checked with UKBA."