Why I offered sanctuary to asylum seekers

Dr Peter Catt explains why he felt driven to threaten civil disobedience in offering his cathedral as a place of sanctuary.

Dr Peter Catt, Dean of St John

Dr Peter Catt, Dean of St John's Cathedral, Brisbane, felt it was time to "put up or shut up", and offered his cathedral as a place of sanctuary for asylum seekers.

March 23 2016Time to put up or shut up’, said the still small voice.

I decided to put up.

And so following consultation with the Cathedral Council I declared St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane, A Place of Sanctuary for Asylum Seekers.

By way of background, it was the first week of February 2016. The High Court was on the verge of handing down a decision that would determine the legality or otherwise of the offshore detention of asylum seekers by the Australian Government.

A group of 267 asylum seekers, made up of people who had been brought to Australia from Nauru for medical treatment and babies born in Australia to mothers brought to Australia for their birth, were being held in Australia awaiting the outcome of the High Court action.

Fearing that the High Court decision would not be favourable to those seeking asylum advocates were formulating a response designed to keep asylum seekers from being returned to harm.

As a result the request came for us at St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane, to be one of a group of churches that might offer sanctuary to asylum seekers facing return to Nauru.

In October 2015 I had begun my third year as Chair of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT). The ACRT is an initiative supported by the National Council of Churches. The Board is made up of members representing nine national churches. The taskforce came into existence in 2012 and has actively advocated for the closure of the Manus Island and Nauruan detention centres. Our focus has often been to highlight the effect detention has on children.

Previously in Holy Week 2014 all five of the Anglican Archbishops had called for children not to be held behind razor wire.

For a number of years synods at the national and diocesan level have called for policy change. Many people in the church have tried various forms of advocacy. And yet the toxic and bipartisan lock down of Australian detention policy has continued despite the overwhelming evidence from the Human Rights Commission, The United Nations, other agencies and medical staff that people in offshore detention, particularly the children, were being harmed by our actions.

We had been talking the talk for a number of years. So now, faced with 267 people about to be removed to place of harm, I felt it was time to put up or shut up.

Sanctuary existed in the English common law from the 4th to the 17th century. It allowed those fleeing the civil authorities to be protected by the church from arrest while within the confines of a church.

While it has no legal effect churches around the world continue to offer sanctuary. The civil authorities out of respect for the tradition often tolerate these actions. Some people therefore remain in a place of sanctuary for years. In Australia in the mid 1990’s churches offered sanctuary to East Timorese asylum seekers who were facing deportation to Indonesia and Portugal.

The offering of sanctuary is always an action of last resort. Those who seek sanctuary enter into a place of confinement; one that is safer than the alternative, but still far from the freedom they have the right to seek.

Those who are thinking of seeking sanctuary during this current action are being given good legal advice to ensure that they know that the offer of sanctuary does not carry any legal protection. They are also being made aware that they might face five years imprisonment should they seek sanctuary. Those of us who provide it could be subject to ten years in prison.

Since the churches made the offer to be places of sanctuary the movement has widened to include hospitals and schools. The Lady Cilento Hospital in Brisbane has become a place of sanctuary for baby Asha. She will not be released until there is a guarantee that she will not be placed in harm’s way. All state premiers and the ACT Chief Minister have also offered to take the 267 people. Teachers, unions, medical staff, doctors, writers and comedians back the movement.

Together all these are working together to make Australia a place of sanctuary. This groundswell serves as a reminder that providing sanctuary is something that a civil society does as a matter of course. Refuges, safe houses and schools are everyday places of refuge. So, just as on the night of the Paris bombings we saw businesses open their doors to allow those on the streets to find safety, we are working to make our country a place where people who are facing persecution can flee.