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Offers of sanctuary brighten Australia's refugee dark age


Anglican and Uniting Churches across Australia have made headlines by offering sanctuary to those who stand to be returned to Nauru under the latest High Court ruling in M68, including 37 babies and a raped five-year-old whose attacker still resides there. In doing so, they have been rediscovering an old concept and reminding the government what refugee law was for in the first place.

Gosford Anglican Church sign offering sanctuary to asylum seekersThe tradition of sanctuary is an ancient one. In the biblical book of Numbers, chapter 35 verses 11–32, the Israelites are commanded to establish cities of refugee to which those accused of homicide could flee.

The early and Mediaeval Church developed the concept into a penitential one. A criminal, sorry for their sins, could gain immunity by seeking sanctuary in a church.

This was particularly useful in the rather fluid legal environment of Europe in the centuries after the fall of Rome. Central authority was often lacking and the Church provided a functional system for meting out a basic form of justice. Sanctuary, often coupled with exile after a period of time, provided an escape valve and a way of avoiding brutal blood feuds lasting for generations.

Later Mediaeval canon law, increasingly influenced by the newly revived Roman law and the rise of the nation state, came to see sanctuary as a matter of jurisdiction. While the early church had seen it as part of a penitential process and a circuit breaker in resolving disputes, the new generation of Roman trained canon lawyers saw it as a matter of jurisdiction — the state's rule stopped at the Church door.

Needless to say, as nation states became more powerful, especially after the 16th century Reformations, that argument cut less and less ice with secular governments.

Instead, the concept of sanctuary got transferred onto the international law stage. Now, it was no longer the Church that was sacrosanct but the territories of other states. As a result, states dealing with each other would regard each others' missions as sovereign territory or, at the least, immune from the law of the state on whose territory they were located.

As a result, the concept of protection in another country's embassy came about. This became a particularly well-used custom in Latin America and is far from dead — as seen in examples like that of Julian Assange and his long stay in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

The concept of territorial protection extended further. While refugee in exile and extradition treaties are as old as history, the law of extradition and asylum really only took centre stage in the 20th century, when detailed principles were developed as to when states would agree to extradite people to other countries — and when they would refuse.

A landmark in this area was the Refugee Convention 1951, when countries around the world determined to take steps to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the Nazi Shoah.

In Australia, the wheel has now come full circle. The state is unwilling to accept its protection obligations under the Refugee Convention (at least in respect of people arriving by boat). And the majority of the High Court has declared that it is also unwilling to make the state change its mind. A retrospective removal of the plaintiff's rights after the court case began, and a nominal transfer of Australia's obligations to Nauru, have sufficed to ensure that Justice's blindfold remains securely in place.

In these circumstances, where the organs of the state are (as in the Dark Ages) unable or unwilling to protect the vulnerable, it is the churches who are speaking out once again.

This is not without precedent. While churches have had no legal rights to grant sanctuary for centuries (and even Canon Law's provisions in this regard were finally removed by the 1983 Code), both Catholic and Protestant churches have, on occasion, granted informal sanctuary to asylum seekers in Latin America, the United States and Europe.

Their calculation has been that to have jackbooted troopers kicking down the doors of houses of worship would be such a bad look that the fear of a PR backlash would provide some degree of protection. It has, surprisingly, often worked.

Unfortunately, the record is not unmixed. The time spent in sanctuary takes its toll on people who are already damaged. In this case, they are likely to be even more so, since they have the combined legacies of overseas persecution and Australia's 'welcome' in Nauru weighing on them even before they enter upon a new life in hiding in a Church.

There is also no guarantee that the optics of kicking down church doors will matter to a government content to return a five-year-old into the vicinity of his rapist. There are examples of previous Australian offers of sanctuary increasing the government's determination to go through with deportation.

So this is no easy solution. Nevertheless, the offer of sanctuary does indicate the presence of people of good will who remember a tradition of offering shelter in the face of persecution and indifference. It speaks to the hope of penitence of changed hearts in a world grown cold to the cries of the suffering.

Time will tell whether or not, in this year which Pope Francis has designated as one of mercy, Australia's churches can help its government and people rediscover the meaning of sanctuary.


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, High Court, Nauru, asylum seekers, Syria, sanctuary, Uniting Church, Anglican Church



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A few U.S. churches over the years have granted sanctuary to illegal aliens, including some fleeing Central American violence in the 1980s and others facing religious persecution in Indonesia today. Canada has been trying to oust a former KGB agent and an AWOL American soldier living in churches for several years. In Norway in 2007, Iranian asylum seeker Shahla Valadi, tired of hiding from deportation in church sanctuaries for seven years, had an RV fitted out as a “rolling church” so she could travel to a demonstration in Oslo. The ploy worked — not only was she not nabbed and deported, she was granted asylum less than two months later..

Father John George | 06 February 2016  

Full marks to those churches willing to take the government on in this matter, they deserve our support. What I find quite incomprehensible in all this is the mental convolutions involved in arguing that in order to dissuade refugees from attempting to reach Australia by boat and to prevent drownings at sea, most of all the drowning of children, it is somehow necessary to put them in a place where worse things happen to them. I do admit that I have never had the experience of drowning at sea nor have I ever been raped but I can imagine that there must be some refugees on Nauru who, thinking that they are in a worse place, must sometimes wish they had drowned. The most disturbing line in Justin Glyn’s essay opines that ‘a government content to return a five-year-old into the vicinity of his rapist’ is unlikely to be swayed by a bunch of churches offering sanctuary to the child. How have we come to this?

Paul | 06 February 2016  

When all our top politicians profess their commitment to Christianity (especially in the Liberal Party) the granting of sanction by the Churches may be embarrassing for them. I am disappointed to notice the absence of Catholic churches in the list of those offering sanctuary. Whether sanctuary becomes a reality or not, the churches are indicating their indignation to what is happening and it is surely comforting for those who may be forced to return to what has been called "hell holes" or the manufacture of mental illness and many Australians, who religious or not, dare to hope and work for their freedom.

Anna | 06 February 2016  

Why hasnt the rapist been charged and removed so does not repeat this heinous crime on other children Where is the outrage on the predators everywhere? As well as the enablers in the Catholic Church !

Leonie Sheedy | 08 February 2016  

Thanks Justin for a reflection on the word Sanctuary. It has led me down a very nostalgic path. As a young Catholic schoolgirl we loved to sing the dirge like hymn Soul of My Saviour , where we prayed to the Lord to "Sanctify our breasts". On my wedding day ,I was absolutely chuffed to be allowed during the nuptial mass as a woman to kneel in the sanctuary to participate in "mass" What an honor! In this holy space.! We were also happy that wildlife sanctuaries were set up to protect native flora and fauna. Sanctuary was a most comforting word. .The whole idea of safety and , holiness was not lost on our generation. Wonderful stories of the church flexing its muscle for the poor , the repentant and even women flavored my youth. It led to movements like YCSand YCW. Oh them were the simple days. So It was refreshing to hear this latest development on the part of the Anglican Church (and now Dan Andrews ,Victorian Premier) to provide refuge for our sisters and brothers who are in such awful conditions in detention. Mercy and compassion will not go astray these days . Maybe it wont be so bad either , as we all learn how to work with compassion in the changed circumstances of our world

Celia | 08 February 2016  

In other words Justin, all that you are saying is that, you do not accept the law of the land

PHIL | 08 February 2016  

Quite correct PHIL, Justin does not accept the law of the land, when it is manifestly unjust. If you had lived in the Soviet Union, would you have accepted that your government should have the right to send political dissidents to the gulags?

Peter Downie | 08 February 2016  

Dear Phil, God's people have never been expected to accept the law of the land where it contravenes God's law of love, or God's commandments as expressed in Scripture, i.e. today's reading from Jeremiah 21 v 3 which says in part " Act with justice... do no wrong or violence to the alien... " or where it contravenes one's conscience. Many martyrs have died because they refused to accept the laws of the land.

Pirrial | 08 February 2016  

Like you Anna i wondered about the Catholic silence. Then I realised that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference had issued a media release on the day of the High Court decision strongly criticising the policies of mandatory and offshore detention and offering to work with other community organisations to provide support for asylum seekers. These measured responses do not grab the headlines, but in the long run, if taken up by ordinary Catholics. might well bring about change.

margaret | 08 February 2016  

Phil, Who was it said 'the law is an ass'? The context in which Dickens used it is interesting. I have a real problem with retrospective laws and laws that encourage cruelty to children.

Margaret McDonald | 08 February 2016  

Surely now is the time for us, people from all Churches, to stand up and manifest our faith into active and urgent.

Peggy Spencer | 08 February 2016  

Phil suggests that all Justin is saying is that he doesn't agree with the law of the land. The article certainly does indicate that, but says much more. It says, to me anyway, that the law of the land is unjust; that the law-makers are self-serving; that this nation's proud claim to be a just and caring society is now a rag in the dust. Justice in Australia, due to devices like back dating legislation to cover illegal government actions, now has her eyes covered with blood-stained bandages. There comes a time when the only action a citizen can take is to resist the lawmakers - by eloquent words in Justin's case, by attending public meetings in the case of those of us too incoherent to express our feelings in words, and eventually by civic disobedience. I don't even want tot mention the last step of manning the barricades.

Vin Victory | 08 February 2016  

It staggers me that when a law does not suit the government it can change it and then blame people for not having kept it!

Heather | 08 February 2016  

My parish has housed asylum seekers for years . What's more two single women have taken in young Afghani men and provided them, not just with a roof over their heads but a sense of belonging to a family.

Patricia Taylor | 08 February 2016  

An interesting account of Church sanctuary. Of course, Churches of all denominations do not have a very good record re child safety. Hopefully, times have changed there. Further, rape of the fuve year old has been denied.

Louw | 12 February 2016  

Thanks Justin I was however disturbed to read that the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne would say that churches in Melbourne and Tasmania would NOT be offering sanctuary because they were not set up to do so. Naturally they are not but there is no reason why they could not organize themselves to do so. In my mind he is simply playing to the law of the land,not the direction of God. Conservatism reigns

geoff | 12 February 2016  

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