SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced a bill Wednesday to speed up the visa application process for international missionary programs.

The Utah Republican proposed to reduce visa processing times by allowing eligible religious organizations to participate in a streamlined blanket petition procedure. Missionaries covered by the blanket petition could get their visas in just a few weeks rather than a few months.

"Missionary service is the lifeblood for many churches across the nation, yet long and unpredictable visa delays are taking a toll on those who have answered the call to serve," Hatch said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City and of which Hatch is a member, has one of the world's largest missionary programs.

Under U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rules, churches must receive approval of a nonimmigrant visa petition before a missionary obtains a visa.

Due to the high volume of petitions, it can take six to nine months to process individual petitions for volunteer missionaries. Add in petition preparation and consular visa processing time, and missionaries face long delays in starting their service, typically nine to 11 months, according to Hatch.