Leaders of three biggest denominations not offering sanctuary for asylum-seekers

NEWS | Tess Holgate
Monday 29 February 2016

The leaders of Australia’s three biggest denominations are not among the 80 churches from nine denominations offering sanctuary to asylum-seekers, following a finding by the High Court of Australia that offshore detention of asylum-seekers was legal.

In an interview with the Catholic Leader, Catholic Archbishop Mark Coleridge said, “We are not going to make the offer of sanctuary; we don’t think it’s the way to go. If others want to do it, that’s just fine.

“As a symbolic gesture it has power to it … but the risk is it can end up looking more like theatre than anything else and could perhaps raise unrealistic or false expectations with people who have suffered a great deal. Whilst I fully applaud the motivation of offering sanctuary … the offer of sanctuary is grounded on cultural and religious understandings that don’t apply in this culture. We prefer to work in ways that are perhaps more realistic and more attuned to the realities we are dealing with now.”

In a statement, Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier said, “We applaud the motives of those Christian churches who intend to test the ancient common law notion of sanctuary, but our churches are not equipped to provide temporary accommodation. A better answer would be for [ the Prime Minister] Mr Turnbull to exercise compassion and moral principle and allow the asylum-seekers to remain in Australia as the processes unfold.

“The Anglican Church in Melbourne – and nationally – will continue to support asylum-seekers and refugees with services and advocacy and spiritual help. The Church and its welfare agencies have long had considerable involvement in resettling refugees and helping them build a life in Australia.”

A spokesperson for the Australian Christian Churches says the “ACC believes that every human being is entitled to live with dignity and be treated with respect. The ACC is involved on different levels with regard to refugees and asylum-seekers who come to Australia.

“ACC leaders are working with authorities from within and many local churches are working in their communities. Local churches are able to assess for themselves whether they want to join others who are making a stand by offering sanctuary.”

Anglican Dean of Brisbane and Chair of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT), Peter Catt, declared his church (St John’s Cathedral Brisbane) a sanctuary for asylum-seekers facing deportation following the High Court ruling in early February.

The ACRT also issued a call for other churches to sign up to offer sanctuary, stating, “the granting of Sanctuary is a strong and pivotal act of civil disobedience on the part of the church. It derives from the ancient power of the church to give ‘Sanctuary’ and offer protection from the authorities to those most vulnerable who are in fear of their lives.”

Misha Coleman, executive officer of the ACRT, says 80 churches have signed up but ACRT will not release a list of churches that are offering sanctuary.

“It is not in anyone’s interest to know which churches are offering sanctuary,” she said.

A list of churches that issued early offers of sanctuary is listed on the ACRT website.

Neil Foster, Associate Professor at Newcastle Law School, writes, “Most people are aware that church buildings in the past were a place of refuge, where some wrongdoers could seek sanctuary from arrest. As a number have noted, this idea no doubt had its roots in the Bible.

“In the early days of the common law of England, this was implemented by a system of sanctuary which applied in local churches in different ways,” writes Foster, but “with the growing power of the secular monarchy, areas where wrongdoers could escape the King’s justice were increasingly reduced, and in 1624 sanctuary as a common law doctrine was abolished by statute.

“It seems likely, then, that members of a church who shelter someone who is supposed to be returned to Nauru may be guilty of an offence under the Migration Act 1958 … The churches have been warned, both by legal experts and by the Immigration Minister, that they may face criminal sanctions if they go ahead with their proposals,” writes Foster.

Two of the churches that have offered sanctuary previously told Eternity they thought it unlikely any asylum-seekers would take up their offer.

Indeed, Peter Catt told Eternity that there were five asylum-seekers families in Brisbane who could take up the offer, but: “My understanding is that these asylum-seekers are so traumatised and so scared that I think it would be very unlikely for them to take up the offer. They don’t want to be labelled as troublemakers. I think they’ll be too fearful to take up the offer.”

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