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Cathedral backs 21st century sanctuary

Anglican Dean of Brisbane Dr Peter Catt, the former Dean of Grafton, is leading a sanctuary offer by Anglican churches around Australia to asylum-seekers facing deportation to Nauru.
Anglican Dean of Brisbane Dr Peter Catt, the former Dean of Grafton, is leading a sanctuary offer by Anglican churches around Australia to asylum-seekers facing deportation to Nauru. DAN PELED

THE historical concept of 'sanctuary' is being offered by Anglican churches across Australia to asylum seekers facing deportation, and leading this "moral stand" against the government's regime is former Dean of Grafton and the church's national spokesperson on refugee issues, Dr Peter Catt.

Now the Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Dr Catt has declared his St John's Anglican Cathedral a place of sanctuary, and would do his best to keep authorities out to protect any asylum seeker who sought refuge.

Dr Catt said it wouldn't be a good look if authorities chose to enter a church to take people away.

"We offer this refuge because there is irrefutable evidence from health and legal experts that the circumstances asylum seekers, especially children, would face if sent back to Nauru are tantamount to state-sanctioned abuse," he said.

"This fundamentally goes against our faith, so our church community is compelled to act, despite the possibility of individual penalty against us."

The High Court on Tuesday upheld the legality of the Turnbull government's offshore processing regime.

The decision means that nearly 270 asylum seekers, including 37 babies, who came to Australia to receive medical treatment, face deportation to either Nauru or Manus Island.

The current Anglican Dean of Grafton, the Very Reverend Donald Kirk, has supported the decision of Dr Catt and the Anglican churches across the country to open their doors.

Father Kirk said the church was taking an ethical and moral stance against the treatment of asylum seekers.

"It's a fairly significant issue for us," he said.

"I don't know of any country in the world that has the same method of offshore processing for asylum seekers.

"We have brought them to Australia ourselves for medical treatment and for their mental well-being, and to turn around and kick them out the door is cruel and unusual punishment.

"The vast majority of people are looking for a safe place to live, and are escaping that kind of treatment elsewhere."

Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice lecturer Dr Cristy Clark said the concept of sanctuary has a long history within Christianity, where it was originally designed to uphold the law, while ensuring it was administered fairly.

"Granting temporary sanctuary was designed to prevent the hasty application of bad justice, or vengeance," she said.

Dr Clark said sanctuary was a part of English common law until it was abolished in 1623.

"However, there has been a modern revival of the practice of sanctuary in both the US and Canada, specifically in response to the issue of asylum seekers," she said.

"It has been argued by academics in relation to this revival in Canada that because the Church is actually seeking to uphold International Law by protecting people who ought to be granted official refugee status, they are actually returning to the older practice of sanctuary, which was designed to uphold justice even when the state is failing to do so itself."

Dr Clark said there could be harsh consequences for individuals who harbour asylum seekers who are to be deported, with the penalty up to 10 years' imprisonment or a large fine.

"However, this would depend on whether the Church actually physically prevented the state from removing asylum seekers, since they have certainly been open about their offer of sanctuary," she said.

"That said, the church has acknowledged that it may be breaching the law and has been open about its decision to engage in civil disobedience in defence of a higher ethical principle."

Topics:  anglican church asylum seekers grafton



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