• Anglican Dean of Brisbane Dr Peter Catt (AAP)
Historically, many places of worship have also been places of sanctuary. But how common is the concept of sanctuary and does it have any legal standing in Australia?
6 Feb 2016 - 2:26 PM  UPDATED 6 Feb 2016 - 2:44 PM

Sanctuary is a religious concept similar to asylum and dates back to the Old Testament.

A group of Anglican churches around Australia is offering sanctuary to a group of people - including children - at risk of being returned to the Pacific island nation of Nauru.

The offer being led by the Anglican Dean of Brisbane Peter Catt comes in the wake of a failed High Court challenge by the group of asylum seekers - who say they risk abuse and trauma if returned to immigration detention on Nauru.

Historically, many places of worship have also been places of sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a religious concept similar to asylum and dates back to the Old Testament.

It was a concept common in the Middle Ages when people could go to a church to claim sanctuary and safety from persecution usually by authorities.

Sociology professor at Monash University, Gary Bouma said it was a tradition that went way back.

"There is certainly reference to it in the Hebrew scriptures where there were cities of refuge where if you could get to, you would get some time to negotiate with the state or whatever body was after you."

Professor Bouma said people who were accepted by places of worship were often off limits to authorities.

"You had some chance of clarifying your name, clarifying the issues. It often had limits. You were safe when you were in the sanctuary, that is while you were in the religious place, the holy place."

Sanctuary has ‘no legal power’ in Australia

The Queensland Law Society (QLS) said there was no modern power of sanctuary in Australian law.

The QLS told AAP that that if churches could overrule the decision of the courts by granting sanctuary, churches would be more overcrowded than jails.

Anglican Dean of Brisbane Dr Peter Catt who has opened up his Brisbane cathedral said he was willing to go to jail to prevent refugees from being deported.

"We're prepared to have people come to the cathedral to claim sanctuary.

“We're prepared to grant them sanctuary and then keep them safe. If I get charged with harbouring an asylum seeker then it's up to 10 years in prison."

The legality of sanctuary has never been tested under Australian law.

Misha Coleman is the Executive Officer of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, which is supporting churches offering sanctuary to asylum seekers and refugees.

She hoped those churches were not going to be tested on the legality of the assistance they are offering.

But Ms Coleman said churches are aware of the personal liabilities and risks they face but still decided to go ahead.

"We obviously hope that we don't have to test this in a court of law but we're relying on the biblical text if you like.

“The Old Testament provides for churches and especially cathedrals providing sanctuary. And indeed in English common law there is a lot of precedents around the church playing that role." 

History littered with examples of sanctuary as place of safety

Ms Coleman said the sanctity of sanctuary that is provided by cathedrals and churches had not been tested in the Australian jurisdiction however there were a range of precedents.

"For example, this year in Germany, almost 200 churches took asylum seekers in to prevent them from being deported back to Syria."

In the United States, in the 1980s what is now known as the Sanctuary Movement was a religious and political campaign providing sanctuary for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict.

The move by more than 250 Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups was in response to federal immigration policies of the time that made obtaining asylum difficult for Central Americans.

Victims of natural disaster, domestic violence also seek refuge

Beyond refugees and asylum seekers though, churches have also provided sanctuary to others fleeing difficult circumstance - but Ms Coleman explained that this was usually without the same legal ramifications.

"In Australia, for example, it is very common for women and children who are trying to escape domestic violence to seek refuge in churches. And after a bushfire, floods, cyclones people seek refuge in churches."

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the federal government won't be dragging asylum seekers out of churches to send them back to Nauru.

Instead their cases would be individually considered on medical advice.

Once medical assistance is completed the government said it would be looking to send people and their families back to Nauru or to their country of origin with financial assistance.