Woman who took sanctuary in Halifax church will leave Canada

Published October 1, 2004

Sanja Pecelj, the Kosovo woman who sought sanctuary in the basement of St. Mark’s church in Halifax, has agreed to accept Ottawa ‘s recommendation to leave Canada and to reapply as a permanent resident under a program that allows provinces to sponsor employable immigrants.

Supporters of Ms. Pecelj expressed frustration that Prime Minister Paul Martin’s promise to review her application for refugee status never materialized.

“We’re not really happy that a file review did not take place,” said Sue Moxley, suffragan bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. “Leaving the country was always the second option. She’s still being deported and she doesn’t want to leave.”

Ms. Pecelj has applied to Austria, Mexico, France, the United States and Italy for visas and hopes that she will be able to stay in one of those countries as she awaits Ottawa ‘s approval of her application. (The province of Nova Scotia has already nominated her to work as a translator for a local company. Ms. Pecelj came to Canada from Kosovo in 2000, when she worked as a United Nations translator at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Cornwallis, N.S. She applied for refugee status saying she feared being killed if she went back to Kosovo since she had worked for the UN.)

Under new federal law Ms. Pecelj’s application would have to be processed in the Canadian consular office in Vienna, which has jurisdiction of her home country, the former Yugoslavia. Processing of her application can take anywhere from four to 18 months.

Bishop Moxley said that Ms. Pecelj’s experience made her realize that “there’s no leeway in this system” and that “it’s important for churches to hang on to the concept of sanctuary as long as the appeal process is not in place.”

On Aug. 4, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, joined Canadian church leaders in defending the church’s time-honoured 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 were responding to a statement made by Immigration Minister Judy Sgro that churches should stop providing sanctuary to refugees since it constitutes a “security risk.” The church leaders were scheduled to meet Ms. Sgro Sept. 29 to discuss the issue.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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