Church defends sanctuary

Published September 1, 2004

Sanja Pecelj, right, and her lawyer, Lee Cohen, at an Aug. 12 press conference announcing her decision to leave Canada and reapply as a permanent resident. Ms. Pecelj lived at a Halifax church for more than a year.

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, joined Canadian church leaders in defending the church’s time-honoured and biblically-rooted tradition of providing sanctuary to refugees facing deportation. They said the only way to deter sanctuary would be for the federal government to address its “flawed” immigration system.

The church leaders, speaking in a public response Aug. 4, were reacting to a statement made a week earlier by Immigration Minister Judy Sgro that churches should stop providing sanctuary to refugees since it constitutes a “security risk.”

“None of us want sanctuary to continue,” said Mary Corkery, executive director of Kairos, a Toronto-based ecumenical organization devoted to social justice.

In a press conference held at Toronto ‘s Church of the Holy Trinity, church leaders said one way to address the issue would be for Minister Sgro to implement the Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act of 2001 passed by parliament, which provides for an appeal process. Ms. Sgro’s predecessor Denis Coderre had promised to implement the merit-based process in May 2002.

“We’ve gone two years late and there’s still no appeal process in place,” said Archbishop Hutchison. He called on Canadian Anglicans to support a campaign asking Ms. Sgro to implement an appeal process. “What we’re asking our government is to stand by its own legislation. There’s no contradiction between our legal and moral obligations here,” he said.

Tom Reilly, general secretary of the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, took issue with Ms. Sgro’s statement that sanctuary threatens the lives of Canadians.

“It’s demeaning to suggest that refugees are somehow dangerous, that they’re a security threat. It foments prejudice against some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” said Mr. Reilly.

Mary Jo Leddy, who is founder of the Romero House refugee shelter, said churches do not take in everybody who requests sanctuary. “…No church group will do this lightly,” she said. “We receive many appeals for help and we investigate each one thoroughly with the help of Amnesty International, which has vast information on country conditions.”

Ms. Leddy vowed that churches would continue providing sanctuary as long as refugees are denied their right to an appeal. “Sanctuary will always come when good people face torture, death, or jail,” she said, adding that she has documented cases of refugees who were killed when deported to their home countries.

The history of sanctuary goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe , according to Amnesty International. In Canada , churches served as headquarters for the Underground Railroad, the network that led slaves from the United States to freedom.

Archbishop Hutchison, Mr. Short, Rev. Richard Fee of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and Rev. William Veenstra, director for Canada Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church in North America have signed a letter urging Minister Sgro to implement the appeal process. The church leaders, who are scheduled to meet with Ms. Sgro in mid-September to discuss sanctuary, encouraged members of their churches also to sign the letter.

In an interview, Archbishop Hutchison said “it really strikes me as extraordinary that (Ms. Sgro) would choose to comment on eight or 10 individuals” currently seeking sanctuary in churches across Canada .

For more than a year, St. Mark’s, an Anglican church in Halifax , provided sanctuary to Sanja Pecelj, who came to Canada from Kosovo in 2000. She announced Aug. 12 that she would leave Canada and reapply as a permanent resident. Another Anglican church, St. Michael’s on East Broadway, Vancouver, has also provided sanctuary. Amir Kazemian of Iran sought sanctuary on June 15 and his case has been submitted for review to Minister Sgro, said Rev. John Marsh, priest-in-charge.


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