The role of sanctuary as opposition to political power

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

What is this -- the Middle Ages? A Toronto church has given sanctuary to a Hungarian Roma family who came here as refugees. They were rejected on a virtual technicality and the Harper government wants them deported. They've lived at the church for two years. Before that they spent a year with Catholic monks. It's not a cathedral, and Quasimodo didn't swoop out of the bell tower to scoop them up. It's on a leafy street. They don't want it named in case the feds decide to rush it or hatemeisters target it.

When I drove up the other day, Timea Daróczi was smoking outside. It's the closest she gets to taking a walk. Her husband Jozsef Pusuma and six-year-old daughter Lulu have taken over the minister's study. The congregation, who prayed a lot before diving in, raised enough to put in a bathroom. Their fridge is in the men's choir room. The barber and dentist come when needed. It's all good, everyone says. I think good is the operative term.

How did it come to this? People wonder how religion-based groups like the Muslim Brotherhood became prominent in the Arab world, where secular-nationalist regimes like Nasser's Egypt were once the norm. But gradually those authoritarian governments narrowed the range of social programs, diverted resources to military and security, and repressed opposition. Only the mosques were too deeply rooted to effectively contain. So they responded to needs like poverty or education and became sites where opposition was voiced -- sanctuaries in a way, for better and worse. Of course we're not the same; but stifled social or political impulses will seek expression -- sometimes via religion.

Our current government has reduced basic services (like Chretien-Martin before it). In the case of refugee claimants, they've restricted access to health care and are doing the same to welfare. They've applied pressure to the screening process and been "incredibly effective," says Toronto Life, with "Hungarian claimants declining by 97 per cent." The numbers seeking asylum here from everywhere have reached a "historic low." Jason Kenney visited Hungary and said, pretty clearly, that Roma refugees aren't wanted (Toronto Life again). Current minister Chris Alexander won't budge on the brutal procedures. Compassionate considerations need not apply. He gets this year's Peter Kent award for pitiless pandering when he should know better.

You can say: wait for an election and vote these guys out. But by then Jozsef and Timea may be gone. They've had a ton of positive media. None of it got them beyond the church property, much less to a McDonalds up the street, which Lulu longs for. That's why the churches act. They can do no other. It's in their DNA, at least some of them. It's also in their scriptures, or some of those.

This brings us to the role of religion in this affair. Is sanctuary an act of religion, or politics, ethics, or something else? I'm happy to call it religious, on the assumption that religion can penetrate almost any aspect of life. Back in the days of Quasimodo, the church was sometimes the source of opposition to political power, when it wasn't trying to exercise that power itself.

Same thing with ISIS. I'm not with those who say it's a perversion of Islam, I think it's a version of Islam, though a highly perverse one. The noble journalist-scholar Rami Khouri was here Wednesday and said ISIS is an outfit of misfits. If they weren't in Syria they'd be with some cult on a mountaintop. Theologian Richard Niebuhr had the final word on this conundrum. He said religion makes good people better and bad people worse. Cases in point: sanctuary and ISIS.

Some words are just too broad and flexible to use seriously. Religion is one; terrorism, another. Harper and the RCMP insist last week's shootings were terrorism. Tom Mulcair took the bait and said they weren't, possibly alienating voters inclined to see every traffic jam in Ottawa now as terror related. Justin Trudeau was more, Yah, whatever. He saved his powder for the real battles, which will be over how many more rights can be jettisoned and oppositional voices shut down -- like the refugee process and the rights that used to attend it.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Brandon Payne/flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.