Columnists

Matthew Behrens
In the spirit of Dr. King, a call for refugee sanctuary

| January 21, 2013
Photo: Revolt! Puppy/Flickr

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The annual mid-January Martin Luther King Day celebrations are generally a frustrating example of how the legacy of a difficult and troubled revolutionary can be co-opted into the image of an acceptable, bland hero who has freeways and monuments named after him.

Outside of a few small circles, King gets boiled down to a facile "he wanted us to be nice to each other" memory that fails to take into account the lovingly subversive message of his life and campaigns to radically transform the established order. Few have heard him name the American government the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, much less his call for a true revolution of values to transform the evils of militarism, racism and capitalism.

In remembering Dr. King this year, one might ask how he and the countless, courageous, often unknown workers in the civil rights movement would view the way Canada's federal government tars whole classes of people as "enemy," from Indigenous rights activists and folks who don't like oil spills to, in the case of this column, refugees. King was clear on this point: "We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [and sisters]."

In the past year, numerous documents produced from the hands of the Harper government have demonized refugees as "bad-faith travellers," spongers off the federal health system, and security threats, among other iterations of "the enemy." One could be forgiven if, after reading this country's fear-mongering refugee and immigrant legislation, you conclude it's actually designed to protect against toxic waste or small pox rather than to welcome those fleeing rape, war, and torture.

The overkill on refugees has prompted protest from unusual corners, such as the medical profession, as well as those who've traditionally spoken up, especially in faith communities. But despite the protests, the ramped up efforts to detain and deport thousands of so-called "failed" refugee claimants -- at a cost of over $100 million a year -- is condemning a growing number to a future of fear, intense hardship, torture and, in numerous documented cases, death. (The United States is notably playing the same game: in 2012, according to the Migration Policy Institute, they spent more on "immigration enforcement" than all other federal law agencies combined.)

 

The option of sanctuary

As life and death decisions are made within the narrow confines of a thoroughly biased system, thousands of rejected refugees face a desperate choice: get on the plane and face intense hardship and torture back home, go underground and risk getting caught, detained, and forcibly placed on that one-way flight, or seek church sanctuary.

While sanctuary is a centuries-old practice in which those who have run afoul of the state find protection within church walls, it is not often used in Canada. While dozens of individual congregations who have risen to the challenge, it's clearly not been enough to meet the needs of those in peril. Indeed, for those who have knocked on many a church door seeking safety for an individual or family, only to be rejected, it often feels like many have forgotten the longstanding call to welcome the stranger, the oppressed, the persecuted, the wrongly defamed. Yet the tradition is firmly rooted in some cultures. Novelist Victor Hugo's classic works Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame both feature church sanctuary as central parts of the stories (the latter opening with a Roma woman seeking sanctuary in the famous cathedral).

Despite the obstacles faced by those seeking sanctuary, there are some faith communities who have come together to provide what has become life-saving support and a de facto appeal process that creates an opening for reconsideration of a case. Canada passed legislation in 2001 mandating a refugee appeal process but has yet to implement one worthy of the name.

According to an academic study of sanctuary in Canada (Randy Lippert's Sanctuary, Sovereignty, Sacrifice), between 1983 and 2003 there were approximately 36 incidents of sanctuary, beginning with the case of a Guatemalan woman in Montreal's St. Andrew's United Church in December 1983. Five weeks after entering sanctuary, a press conference was held to announce what was happening, and hours later a temporary halt of deportations to Guatemala was announced. During the period of study, there were 261 people in sanctuary, but based on five cases, temporary blanket stays of removal for whole communities were made (Guatemala, Turkey, Chile, Zimbabwe and Algeria). This affected more than 2,000 individuals slated for deportation.

In the end result, 70 per cent of those who sought sanctuary received legal status. In some cases individuals left and reported for deportation or went underground. But the figures point to an important conclusion: sanctuary provided the space to gather information, correct errors, and save lives.

Since the publication of that study, there have been almost two dozen additional known cases (not counting the thousands of "informal sanctuary" arrangements with communities and friends), the majority of which have proven successful as errors and misinterpretations are corrected, proper evidence is found, and individuals get a new lease on life. But the cost has been high: what was during the course of Lippert's study an average church stay of 150 days is now pushing, in some cases, beyond three years, an incredible punishment of individuals who are suffering because of the failures of the Canadian refugee system.

Historic juncture

What will churches, synagogues, temples and mosques do at this historic juncture? The United, Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran and Presbyterian churches have all produced guides on provision of sanctuary, and the Unitarians have passed a resolution in support of the practice. The United Church of Canada's 34th General Council upheld "the moral right and responsibility of congregations to provide sanctuary to legitimate refugee claimants who have been denied refugee status."

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declared in 2005 that "Each Christian community, after an in-depth study of refugee policies and prayerful discernment, in consultation with diocesan authorities, is called to act in a spirit of hospitality as the Gospel demands.

"According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2242, 'The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.' As an Episcopal Conference, the CCCB acknowledges the importance of the recourse to sanctuary in order to protect asylum seekers whose safety may be placed in jeopardy. Even though it may not be officially recognized in law, we call upon Canadian authorities to respect the sanctity of sanctuaries."

To date, with one exception, authorities have been loathe to invade sanctuary churches (and in that instance, the individual taken out had a criminal arrest warrant. After years of effort, he is now, however, a Canadian citizen.). No church body has had its charitable status threatened, no church board member has been arrested, no one has been charged, no one has been fined, no one has gone to jail. The government perhaps knows that invading sacred space would alienate its core constituency.

A civil initiative

Churches hosting refugees often find the act of providing hospitality becomes a community-building moment where congregations can rally around someone in a manner that helps them live out their core beliefs in a meaningful way. And while some call sanctuary civil disobedience, it is, in many ways, a civil initiative that seeks to act in accordance with higher laws (what some call God's law) as well as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a slew of international human rights treaties binding on Canada. It is reminiscent of the Nuremberg obligation: to act in positive, life-affirming ways that run counter to a government practice that is in violation of the law.

Canada's own refugee legislation is written with the very clear preamble that it must comply with the international human rights instruments to which it is a party. That the government fails to do so creates the vacuum in which sanctuary-seeking refugees now find themselves.

Which leads us to a question: what would Martin Luther King do?

King answered in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" (which was, significantly, addressed to his fellow clergy): "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool."

"Any law that degrades human personality is unjust," King wrote, adding, "Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being 'disturbers of the peace' and 'outside agitators.' But they went on with the conviction that they were a 'colony of heaven,' and had to obey God rather than man… Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound… Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are."

King concluded that if the modern church did not "recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century."

While Canadian churches have a long and conflicted history -- being the taproot of a significant pacifist wave in the 1930s at the same time they were running residential schools with illegally kidnapped Indigenous children, for example -- they now have a unique opportunity to provide sanctuary and thereby live out King's call for relevance, witness, and that "colony of heaven" approach that leads toward a beloved community. It's also an approach that will save lives.

While some may still be guided by fear, King reminds us, "Fear is mastered through faith. Fear is mastered through love."

Faith communities willing to consider a discussion of sanctuary are urged to contact the Anne Frank Sanctuary Committee (tasc@web.ca, 613-267-3998) and the Canadian Sanctuary Network sanctuaryincanada@gmail.com, www.sanctuarycanada.ca

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Revolt! Puppy/Flickr