The Church As Sanctuary
The Church As Sanctuary

When Quebec City police arrived at the door of the St. Pierre United Church on March 5, 2004 , they pushed past the Rev. Gérard Doré, and headed into the church in search of Mohamed Cherfi. Cherfi is an Algerian refugee claimant who sought sanctuary in the church in February after losing a long battle with immigration officials to remain in Canada . Police found him in the basement and clamped on handcuffs. His arrest was the first time the police had ever breached church sanctity in the country.

"We, as a church, have a responsibility to protect people from unjust laws,"

Cherfi says his life will be in danger if he is deported back to his homeland, where he has been a vocal critic of human rights abuses.

"I am outraged, I am indignant, and I am sad," said Doré.

"We denounce the violent intrusion of the Quebec police into one of our sanctuaries," said the United Church of Canada in a statement released shortly after Cherfi was apprehended. The church expressed dismay the arrest would start a precedent of breaking religious sanctuaries

As of July 2004, six churches in the country were providing shelter to refugee claimants:

  1. Notre Dame de Grace in Montreal is helping four Palestinians.
  2. Union United Church in Montreal is harbouring an Ethiopian mother and her three children.
  3. St. Andrew-Norwood United Church in Montreal is providing refuge to a Colombian family.
  4. The First Unitarian Congregation in Ottawa opened its doors to a Bangladeshi man.
  5. Calgary's St. Cecilia's Catholic Church is helping a Nigerian woman and her daughters.
  6. A Serbian woman is holed up in an Anglican Church shelter in Halifax.

The practice of giving sanctuary goes back to Biblical times and was codified in the fifth century AD, when Roman law guaranteed that churches could provide refuge, even for criminals.

"We, as a church, have a responsibility to protect people from unjust laws," United Church minister Daryll Gray told the Canadian Press.

Canada's sanctuary movement began in 1983, when a Guatemalan was given safe haven in a Montreal church and eventually granted a stay of deportation. Since then, Canadian churches have passed resolutions reaffirming the right of asylum, particularly for refugees who have been denied immigrant status. In the mid-nineties, The Council of Churches in Canada approved a United Church edict that "sanctuary is a place recognized as holy, a place of refuge. It is a sacred place where fugitives from the law have traditionally been secured by the church against arrest or violence."

There are no laws in Canada protecting church sanctity and until the March incident, Canadian police had been reluctant to breach it. France has adopted a law allowing police to break church sanctuaries, while British and American police have routinely gone in and taken people from churches.

Hundreds of people have sought sanctuary in Canadian churches since the eighties. It's a practice Immigration Minister Judy Sgro would like to stop.

"People shouldn't be allowed to hide anywhere," Sgro told the Canadian Press. "Nobody is exempt from the law."

Sgro is meeting with church leaders to talk about the situation. She says Church leaders say they are forced to allow people to take refuge because the federal system for determining refugee status is flawed.

"Canada is not living up to its international obligations," says Rev. Chris Ferguson, spokesperson for justice issues for the United Church. Ferguson says churches do not believe they are breaking the law since they see it as a moral obligation to protect refugees.

Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of refugees, says the problem has become acute since 2002, when the government introduced a new Refugee Protection and Immigration Act. Refugee cases are now heard by one adjudicator, instead of two.

"At least if you got one bad adjudicator, it would be balanced off by a second person who was better at examining your case," Dench told CBC News Online. "The decisions are inconsistent and sometimes erroneous. Sometimes, two people with the same background are given different rulings."

Dench said the system doesn't have a mechanism for correcting errors. There is no appeal process where the case can be looked at on its merits. Claimants can take their case to the Federal Court of Canada, which will examine only whether the adjudicator followed proper procedures.

"Churches feel they have no alternative but to offer sanctuary even if it is the least desirable option. To take refuge in a church is a desperate act."

Dench says the situation for refugees has been exacerbated by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Many countries, including Canada, are now less open to refugees from Arab countries. Dench also says there is a "high degree of hostility towards refugee claimants" in general.

She points out that Canada has fewer refugee claimants to process. In 2001, there were a record 44,795 claims; in 2003 this number dropped to 31,837.

"If we are going at the rate we are in 2004, the total at the end of this year will be around 23,000," predicted Dench.

Sgro says she plans to remodel the entire system. Church and refugee groups say the fix is simple–allow two adjudicators for every hearing and implement an appeal process.