What is sanctuary and how safe is it really?

What is sanctuary and how safe is it really?

What is sanctuary, where does it come from and does it have any legal standing in Australia?  

A number of churches around Australia offered sanctuary to a group of asylum seekers - including children - at risk of being returned to the Pacific island nation of Nauru.

The offer was led by the Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Peter Catt, and followed a failed High Court challenge by lawyers for the group, who say they risk abuse and trauma if returned to immigration detention on Nauru.

What is sanctuary, where does it come from and does it have any legal standing in Australia?

The Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Dr Peter Catt, says he is willing to offer sanctuary - and to go to jail to prevent refugees being deported.

"We're prepared to have people come to the cathedral and 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 imprisonment."

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

There are written references to sanctuary in the holy books common to the so-called Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam being the largest - and the idea may be even older.

It was often invoked in the Middle Ages when people could go to a church to claim protection from persecution, often from civil authorities.

Gary Bouma is a Professor of Sociology at Monash University.

"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 and have some chance of clarifying your name, clarifying the issues, but they couldn't for a period of time. 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."

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

The Queensland Law Society points out that if churches could overrule the decisions of the courts by granting sanctuary, churches would be more overcrowded than jails.

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

She hopes those churches are not pushed to test the legality of the assistance they are offering.

Ms Coleman adds that churches are aware of personal liabilities and risks they are taking in offering help - but says the leaders of these churches see this as their job, regardless of whether they are breaking any law.

"The sanctity of sanctuary that's provided by cathedrals hasn't been tested in the Australian jurisdiction however there are 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. And 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's a lot of precedents around the church playing that role."

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.

Beyond refugees and asylum seekers, though, churches have also provided sanctuary to others fleeing difficult circumstances - but usually without the same legal implications.

Misha Coleman explains.

"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. There are many current examples in Australia and around the world where people expect to hope to find care and support. "

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has told Sydney commercial radio 2UE there are a lot of well-intentioned people involved, but even churches are not above the law.

"Churches provide a lot of assistance to refugees and they feel very strongly about these issues, I understand that. But in the end people have to abide by Australian law regardless of who you are."




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