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By Derek Burnett 5-06-2018

It’s spring in North Carolina, and although Juana Luz Tobar Ortega is not free to go home or to wander out in the world, she would like to feel the sun on her face. She exits the building but, never straying far from its brick walls, takes a seat on a stone bench and crosses her feet, one of which bears an electronic ankle monitor. The air is fresh, the sunlight warm. But this is as far as she will go.

The building against her back, where she’s been living these past nine months, is not a prison. It is Greensboro’s St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, and it’s the only thing keeping her from being deported to her native Guatemala and separated from her four children and two grandchildren. Juana lives here in defiance of a deportation order that, to her and the members of this congregation, is unjust and inhumane given that she fled her country after multiple death threats by guerillas and has been a member of her community since her arrival in 1990. While lawyers work on her case and her family petitions their elected representatives to act on her behalf, Juana whiles away her days cleaning the church, cooking, and sewing. The authorities know that she is here. There is an understanding that ICE will not enter the building to arrest her, but that’s all it is — an understanding.

Meanwhile, the months drag on. “I thought it was going to be quick,” she says. “It hasn’t been.”

Juana’s case is not isolated, here or abroad. In the U.S., as the Trump administration pushes its anti-immigrant agenda, shifting its enforcement emphasis from prioritizing migrants with criminal convictions to going after anyone without papers, more and more migrants find themselves turning to church sanctuary as a last resort to keep from being taken from their families and set down in dangerous and often unfamiliar countries that they haven’t seen in years or even decades. There are currently 36 such public cases around the country, with 1,100 congregations of all faiths joining the movement. And what to most Americans might seem a peculiarly local phenomenon is anything but: Church sanctuary is happening in a surprising number of countries around the world, with mixed success. As an international movement begins to take shape in response to the global refugee crisis, governments are taking notice and, in some cases, striking back.

A History of Resistance

The “New Sanctuary Movement,” as it’s called in the U.S., has as immediate antecedent the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when Christian congregations established a network — consciously modeled on the Underground Railroad — to help refugees fleeing the killing fields of Central America make safe passage to immigrant strongholds in the U.S. and Canada. The federal government did not take kindly to these activities, infiltrating the movement with paid informants and, ultimately, putting 18 Christian activists on trial for violating immigration laws. Eight of them, including a pastor named John Fife, were convicted; Fife served five years’ probation. Undaunted, he has remained a stalwart defender of migrants’ rights and, under the Obama and Trump administrations, has watched the birth of the New Sanctuary Movement arise as another generation of Central Americans flees the gangs and cartels that thrive in the aftermath of the armed conflicts that were driving families over the border in the 1980s.

While the New Sanctuary Movement looks to Fife’s generation for inspiration, its actions are by design less secretive and focused less on spiriting newcomers to safe spaces than on the basic practice of housing a well-established migrant in a single place of worship while his or her case is quite publicly worked out in the courts.

“One of the most critical pieces is the public narrative and advocacy side, helping make sure that the stories of the people are getting out into the world to make sure that we don’t have to try to protect one family after another,” says Kristin Kumpf, the director of Human Migration and Mobility for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), one of the organizations at the heart of the New Sanctuary Movement. Carrying out sanctuary publicly also helps congregations avoid running afoul of anti-harboring statutes.

Still, it is not a practice to be engaged in lightly, neither for the migrants nor for the congregations who offer sanctuary (a church in Michigan has received a barrage of threats for sheltering a 63-year-old Pakistani woman, for example). Although it ultimately, grudgingly, granted refugee status to Central Americans fleeing war in the 1980s, the U.S. government proved by its aggressive tactics that it is not above going after the clergy. And there is nothing written into U.S. law — nor into that of any other modern nation-state — forbidding the authorities from entering a place of worship to arrest someone sheltering there. If ICE agents decide they’d like to march into St. Barnabas and handcuff Juana Tobar, they are restrained by only three considerations:

  • Respect for sacred space, which goes back centuries but arguably holds less currency today than at any other time in the past two millennia,
  • A nonbinding “letter of guidance” issued to ICE’s regional offices in 2011 discouraging them from raiding “sensitive locations” such as churches, schools, and hospitals, and,
  • The government’s fear of public opinion.

While none of these considerations are rock-solid, the last is probably the surest of the lot in our present context.

A Reversal in Germany

At the same time John Fife and his collaborators were working to protect migrants coming through the Sonoran desert in the 1980s, an activist named Hanns Thomae and a few like-minded Christians in Germany were beginning to offer sanctuary to refugees fleeing the Lebanese civil war. The kirchenasyl, or Church Asylum, movement there has grown steadily over the decades and now dwarfs U.S. activity, both in terms of the numbers of people living in sanctuary (644 at last count) and in terms of its level of organization and institutionalization. In fact, for a time recently, its principal advocacy body, called the German Ecumenical Committee on Church Asylum, served in a review capacity working with the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees to double-check its decisions regarding asylum seekers.

But the German government has, over the past three years, taken a drastic anti-immigration turn, reversing its once-welcoming stance toward refugees and instituting a number of measures to curb the influx of asylum seekers. In the years since 2015, when Germany received nearly 900,000 migrants, conservative politicians have introduced one legislative package after another, all designed to restrict immigration. Last year, the country took in only 187,000. Germany still processed more asylum applications in 2017 than all other EU countries combined, but, Thomae says, the political climate has changed so dramatically that it appears inevitable that the country will begin intercepting migrants on entry and forcing them into camps, where they will be held against their will for as long as it takes to process their applications.

Against that backdrop, churches across Germany are scrambling to shelter refugees to keep them from being sent back into harm’s way even as they leverage their considerable public voice to pressure the government for a more humane policy. The Ecumenical Committee estimates that, historically, 70-90 percent of all kirchenasyl cases have met with favorable outcomes. But Thomae is wary of a new landscape in which migrants will be physically out of churches’ reach.

“I expect that we will have these camps within one or two years,” he told Sojourners. “And if we are not allowed to get in[to them], then it will be very difficult.”

One cause for hope is the possibility that politicians will stop short of building the camps, giving second thought to a policy that might harm Germany’s international prestige. Given the country’s history during the 20th century, says Ecumenical Committee managing director Genia Schenke, “Germans building camps for foreigners does not sound good.”

Australia’s Quiet Victory

Such concern for “optics” has been successfully exploited by sanctuary movements around the world, perhaps most notably in Australia, which has one of the cruelest and most draconian immigration policies of all the developed countries.

Since 2013, Australia has removed refugees and asylum seekers trying to reach its soil by boat, placing them in deplorable conditions in detention centers on the tiny Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus. Determined that none of them be allowed to live on the Australian mainland, the government has attempted to broker deals with third-party countries to accept the migrants. Human rights groups have issued stinging reports about the wretchedness of the Nauru and Manus camps, citing sexual assault, lack of medical care, subpar food, unnecessary deaths, and a plague of PTSD and other mental illnesses, including among the children. Researchers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who visited Nauru called the conditions “the worst they had ever seen.”

In 2016, some 400 asylum seekers, in dire need of medical care, were brought to Australia from Nauru for treatment. When the government prepared to ship them back to the island camp, social justice advocates issued a legal challenge. The case went before the country’s highest court, which ruled that the government had every right to put the migrants back on Nauru.

Appalled by this national failure of moral clarity, the Australian Churches Refugee Task Force (an initiative of the National Council of Churches) publicly announced that its more than 100 congregations would provide sanctuary to asylum seekers who wished to evade deportation to Nauru. After the churches issued their statement, schools, hospitals, and even state governments made sanctuary offers of their own.

“It actually provided a real moment for Australians to think deeply about refugee and asylum-seeker policy,” says Rev. Peter Catt, chair of the Australian Churches Refugee Task Force. “And that one action changed the public opinion polls by nearly 20 percent in favor of being more compassionate towards asylum seekers and refugees. In only a two-week period it was the largest shift in public opinion that’s ever been seen in Australia on one issue.”

The government blinked and, while making no overt announcements signaling a shift in policy, quietly allowed the asylum seekers to stay, without it ever becoming necessary for them to take sanctuary in churches.

“[The government] realized it would be a really bad look to be breaking down the doors of my cathedral to take children into custody to send them to Nauru,” said Catt, who is also the Anglican Dean of Brisbane. “They worked out really quickly that we were serious. And so they just quietly backed down.”

‘The People of Anne Frank’

Faith communities providing sanctuary to migrants is, of course, not only a Christian affair. In the U.S., synagogues and mosques have been integral components of the new sanctuary movement, in some cases providing physical sanctuary to migrants and consistently giving support, both materially and in terms of public advocacy. In Israel, reform rabbis are leading a movement to protect some 38,000 African asylum seekers who the hardline Likud government has scheduled for deportation.

The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers in Israel came from Eritrea between 2006 and 2012, fleeing one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world, many of them to avoid compulsory — and, often enough, indefinite — military service. South Tel Aviv has become a crowded enclave for such refugees and, in a depressingly familiar pattern, longtime residents began to chafe against the newcomers. Rhetoric escalated; the country’s finance minister fumed that the city was “living under a reign of terrorism from illegal migrants.” In December 2017 the Knesset agreed on a massive deportation scheme: Those migrants who would agree to leave voluntarily before the deadline of April 1, 2018 (the first day of Passover) would be given a stipend and airfare to a third-party country. (It has been widely reported that the destination countries would be Rwanda and/or Uganda, but all three nations have been opaque as to the arrangement.) Anyone declining the offer would, after the April deadline, be jailed until such time as the government could get around to deporting them by force. Beginning with unattached males, the state would in April begin its mass deportations to the tune of 600 migrants per month.

Rabbis Susan Silverman, Tamara Schagas, and Nava Hefetz, all of whom had worked with the asylum-seeker community for years, were appalled by the government’s plan.

“We know that when African asylum seekers leave Israel, they’re faced with trafficking and death,” Silverman told Sojourners. “Even though in theory Israel sends them to a country where they could be safe, they don’t arrive there with any kind of paperwork, so what happens is that they’re immediately back on the refugee trail, often with a lot of their money gone. The only safe place for them to be in this whole region is Israel.”

The government had laid before the migrants two equally unattractive courses of action: self-deport or go to jail. So Silverman and her colleagues reached out to the Israeli public with a simple message: “Let’s give a third option, which is to hide in families’ homes.” They were astonished by the response.

Within weeks, more than 2,500 Israeli families from all across the country signed up to house asylum seekers in open defiance of their government. The movement that arose calls itself Miklat Israel (Sanctuary Israel), but has been nicknamed the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement, thanks to the story of an Eritrean migrant who read the young girl’s WWII-era diary in an Ethiopian refugee camp and reassured himself throughout his journey that “the people of Anne Frank will protect me.”

To date, there are only about a dozen cases of asylum seekers sheltering in Israeli homes, but Miklat is developing its sanctuary infrastructure in earnest, and the movement continues to build even as the larger story unfolds. In mid-March, the government announced that it would postpone its deadline until after Passover. Then, in early April the Supreme Court issued an injunction to allow opponents of the deportation scheme to argue against it. As of this writing, the fate of those thousands of Eritreans hangs in the balance. What will happen if the government attempts to follow through on its plan? “Our commitment is that we’re going to fight,” Silverman says. “We’re going to fight until we win.”

A Tenuous Tradition

Israel. Canada. Switzerland. The Netherlands. Trinidad. Finland. More migrants are on the move than at any time in human history, and all over the world, congregations concerned with protecting vulnerable strangers in their midst are rediscovering the ancient tradition of sanctuary, which dates back to the mistiest beginnings of Western civilization. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Hebrews all recognized the sanctity of places of worship as refuges for the pursued: The long arm of the law stopped at the threshold of the temple.

During the Middle Ages, church sanctuary was inscribed in both secular and ecclesiastical legal codes and practiced widely throughout Europe — though the people taking shelter in churches were not innocent migrants but rather killers, thieves, and rapists on the lam who would be redeemed and rehabilitated through Christian doctrine. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, buffeted by law-and-order arguments that would sound familiar to modern Americans, the concept of sanctuary began to lose currency. By 1917, Catholic cannon law had little to say about the practice, and the 1983 issuance said nothing about sanctuary at all.

“This privilege,” says Karl Shoemaker, PhD, a legal historian at the University of Wisconsin, “this protection that had been a hugely important part of church law, has simply been written out of the text. For the last 400 years or so, we live in a world that doesn’t have wide respect for sanctuary protections. And that makes us quite different, actually.”

Still, a cultural memory of sanctuary has remained, with isolated cases keeping the tradition alive. Here and there around the globe that memory crops up and people give it a try. Where it does appear, sanctuary is a conundrum for secular authorities precisely because it is an anachronism, precisely because it has been “written out of the text” — and precisely because of that lingering idea that one does not enter a church to execute secular law. In today’s model, sanctuary functions as a safety valve, a moral check on the state’s pursuit of its own narrow economic and political interests. An increasingly secular state is therefore a driving force behind the practice of sanctuary. Yet the Catch-22 is that a too-secular society will no longer honor the sanctity of the house of worship. Effective church sanctuary, then, rests on a knife’s edge: It requires a Goldilocks zone in which a society is just inhumane enough to ignore the suffering of vulnerable strangers, rendering sanctuary necessary, but just humane enough to refrain from violating the sanctity of its faith communities, rendering sanctuary ineffectual. Not every country in the world exists in that Goldilocks zone.

Governments Strike Back

In 2016, two young male Iraqi refugees in Reykjavik, Iceland, found themselves facing deportation. More than a decade earlier, the European Union had adopted what came to be known as the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that each asylum seeker must make his application with the country through which he first entered Europe. Because Ali Nasir and Majed had first been fingerprinted in Norway, Icelandic officials would deport them to that country, whose policy on Iraqi asylum seekers is to deposit them in what it deems a safe area of southern Iraq. Human rights groups have criticized the tactic, insisting the refugees are not safe there.

Desperate to avoid that path, the young men were nearly out of options. But they had heard stories of asylum seekers being protected by churches in other European countries, so they petitioned the leaders of Reykjavik’s Langarnes Icelandic Church to provide them sanctuary. Vicars Kristin Tomasdottir and Toshiki Toma gave the idea careful thought and finally concluded that the sanctity of human rights was sufficient reason for them to get involved, so long as they could reassure themselves that they were not breaking the law.

The church alerted the police as to the refugees’ whereabouts and welcomed the young men into sanctuary. Then, on June 27 of last year, while 30 churchgoers gathered in the chapel for a midnight prayer meeting for the young men, a black van and two police cruisers pulled up outside. The officers who exited the vehicles walked resolutely up the stone stairs into the church, then stepped quietly up the aisle to the altar, where they stood face to face with the asylum seekers. In the strange hush that followed, the police seized the young men, handcuffed them, and dragged them bodily down the aisle and out the front door. Ali, panicked, entered the police cruiser sobbing; Majed needed to be laid facedown across the seats in the back of the van. Moments later the vehicles swept off up the street, leaving the parishioners on the sidewalk shocked and heartbroken.

Icelandic authorities had made it clear: Church doors would be no barrier to immigration policy.

Weeks later, police in Sweden made a surprise raid on a church-sponsored summer camp for refugee families at a hostel in a national park near Malmo.

“I and my colleagues were cooking dinner and the families were making the table,” recalls Deacon Linus Hermansson. “The kids were playing outside. The border police surrounded the hostel and came out from the forest in civilian clothes.”

While Hermansson and his Church of Sweden colleagues argued with police over whether a warrant was required, dozens more officers with dogs encircled the buildings. With shocked church members and refugees crying and shaking in fear, the agents loaded five out of the six families — 16 refugees in all — onto minibuses and carried them away to be deported.

In the wake of the incident, the police summarily dismissed the idea that the refugees were off-limits because they were at a religious retreat. “There are no protected zones according to Swedish law,” a spokesperson flatly stated.

Hermansson does not find the attitude surprising.

“Sweden is a very secular country where many decision-makers and police officers have very little connection or ties to churches,” he said. “The laws protecting church sanctuary that were created in 1280 were declared obsolete in the 1990s.”

Around the time Swedish police were making their mass arrests at the church event, an Afghan family of four was living quietly at the New Life Sunnhordland Church in Fijar, Norway. The couple had fled Afghanistan in 2015 to avoid the deadly consequences of having defied an arranged marriage years before, when the woman had been only 14. Unfortunately, the Norwegian government had rejected the family’s application for asylum, unconvinced by the couple’s assertion that they would be murdered by dishonored relatives if returned to Afghanistan. The father had undergone a conversion to Christianity but this, too, was pronounced a sham by the government. Pastor Frank Havik’s congregation welcomed the family into sanctuary, housing them in a small church that was already furnished with living quarters. As so often happens, the family quickly won a place in the hearts of the parishioners, and the father even began preaching during meetings.

Then, in the wee hours of Feb. 23 of this year, the family was awakened by the sound of breaking glass. It was the police, smashing their way into the church. They forced their way through the front entrance, past an inner door and into the living quarters, where they handcuffed the adults, separated them from the children, and hauled them out of the building.

“In Norway it is not common for the police to carry weapons,” Havik says. “But here everyone was armed.”

Havik and his church took immediate legal action to block the deportation, but a judge ruled that the family should be sent back to Afghanistan. Norway, like the U.S., has only guidelines, not laws, suggesting that police should not enter churches to make arrests. And besides, the state argued, the building in which the family had been sleeping was not after all a church (Havik adamantly contests that assertion, insisting that the building has never been anything but a church since its construction in the early 1970s). But in mid-March, when there was an unanticipated delay in the deportation process, the family fled to a different church, a Lutheran chapel in Honefoss. There they remain — for the moment. Time will tell whether Norway is in or out of the Goldilocks zone.

Testing the Limits

To date, the American government has not acted so brazenly as to literally smash in any church doors. But there is good reason to wonder about the future. Without singling out faith communities, President Trump and his administration have been vociferous in their condemnations of the concept of sanctuary, and have moved from rhetoric to action in conducting huge raids in sanctuary states and cities. Less publicly, however, ICE has been nibbling away at the edges of church sanctuary, as if testing the limits of public sentiment.

Last year, agents waited outside a church-run warming center in Alexandria, Va., on a frigid night and, as men of color exited the building, arrested seven of them. Then in the early weeks of 2018, ICE arrested the husband of a woman who was in church sanctuary in Colorado, as well as two sanctuary activists in New York City. Sanctuary workers there have reported surveillance vehicles outside houses of worship.

“It’s terrifying,” says AFSC’s Kristin Kumpf. “We absolutely are worried that we have not seen the worst of what ICE and the government are capable of.”

The pushback from governments around the world is not particularly surprising to John Fife who, you will remember, was prosecuted for his pioneering sanctuary work in the 1980s.

“[There] is a global phenomenon of government authorities trying, through arrests or invasion of sacred sites, to deter this witness of faith communities to their defense of human rights,” he told Sojourners. “But whenever governments have tried to criminalize or intimidate faith communities, the record from history is that more faith communities have stood up and joined the resistance and ultimately prevailed. I have a great deal of confidence from that history that we will respond in faith as the church always has.”

Given what’s at stake, the need for a unified global faith-based sanctuary movement becomes apparent. Yet despite the prevalence of religious sanctuary in different parts of the world, it remains largely an atomized phenomenon with little international discourse. When asked whether they feel part of a global movement, most sanctuary activists say they do – yet they tend to lack specifics about what exactly is happening in other countries. However, like so many things, that too may be changing: A core group of U.S., German, and Canadian sanctuary workers, who have had several fruitful exchanges in the past, is in the process of developing a draft document outlining a set of global principles of sanctuary, which it has begun to circulate to organizers worldwide in an attempt to build a truly robust international coalition. Rick Ufford-Chase, who runs the Presbyterian Church’s Stony Point Center, is one of the document’s principal authors.

“Our hope is that this statement might help all of us to think beyond ourselves,” he said, “and that it might eventually become enshrined in international law in a way that will recognize the fundamental human rights of all people to both offer and receive sanctuary.”

Kumpf agrees. “We need more and more people, especially in unlikely places, to say enough is enough,” she says. “We have to keep building out the movement.”

Derek Burnett writes frequently about national affairs, travel, and adventure. His work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Discovery Channel Magazine, and numerous other publications, and has taken him from Brazil to Burma, Jamaica to Jammu.

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