Churches as sanctuaries: protection from deportation to Nauru

We have a civic and a Christian duty to reject violence against people who seek asylum in Australia.

By Lucy Allan and Misha Coleman

March 24 2016Since the first week of February, churches in every state and territory, from nine Christian denominations, have stood up and offered their buildings as places of sanctuary for people who are currently facing deportation to Nauru. This timely move has sparked thousands of conversations across the country about the nexus between following Jesus and engaging with the powers of the State.

The Church has a strong history of civil disobedience in situations where minority groups are systematically subjected to violence at the hands of the State.

The most famous modern example is of the church leaders and congregations who participated in diner sit-ins and boycotts during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, which eventually saw the abolition of racial segregation in the United States.

In the 1980s Los Angeles churches led a sanctuary network to protect people who had migrated from Latin America and were facing deportation to the countries from which they had fled. The sanctuary actions worked partly in secret, partly in public and spread gradually across the United States. Eventually the government begun to prosecute clergy, but this served only to draw attention to the situation and increase the support for the plight of Latin American refugees, from both religious and secular institutions. The sanctuary movement, alongside other actions, achieved public and political support not only for the refugees themselves, but also for the plight of people struggling under oppressive regimes in the countries from which they fled.

Closer to home, the Christian Sanctuary Network, which was strongly supported by the Sisters of St Joseph amongst many others, mobilised around 5000 Australians in the 1990s to open their homes to East Timorese asylum seekers who were facing deportation by the Australian government. This move was highly persuasive; none of the asylum seekers was deported!

In the Bible, there are multiple examples of men and women of God involved in actions opposing unjust laws.

The first act of biblical civil disobedience was by the mother of Moses, who hid her own child from Pharaoh's army, which had been commanded to slaughter Hebrew babies. There was the prophet Daniel who spoke truth to power even though it meant risking the lion’s den, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who risked being thrown into the furnace for refusing to bow down to a false idol. Ultimately, our Lord Jesus was killed by the State for being a living challenge to its power.

Some 2000 years later, the tragedy of the cross has been re-enacted again and again. Political powers continue to enact violence and “sacrifice” people to pursue their own interests. Most poignantly in Australia today we are incarcerating and abusing men, women and children who have sought asylum, in order that political parties can score support by abating a fear of the other which they themselves have instilled in our society. It is in our name that our government commits this violence.

Forgive us, Lord.

And so we have a civic duty, and within the Church, a Christian duty as individuals, to reject this violence. Not in our name. And as a morally influential institution in Australia, the Church has an enormous capacity to bring about change.

The decision of Australian church leaders to offer sanctuary to people facing deportation back to Nauru — even to the point of risking gaol sentences — is not only a natural expression of faith which draws on our ancient heritage, but also a remarkably effective move towards justice for vulnerable people who are seeking our protection.

Lucy Allan is a Love Makes a Way organiser. Misha Coleman is executive officer of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce. For more information about the National Church Sanctuary Movement visit www.acrt.com.au