Sanctuary No More

Police in Copenhagen, Denmark have stormed a Christian church to remove 17 Iraqi men who have been living in the church since May in order to avoid deportation to Iraq.  The pastor of the church as well as a former Danish Prime Minister have expressed outrage and indignation at this action, which on the whole, denotes a change in tactics that have largely kept civil forces from similar actions in other countries in the world.

The concept of the church being a place of sanctuary is an old one.  When the Israelites conquered the Promised Land in the Old Testament, they were instructed to designate six specific cities of refuge (Numbers 35).  These were to be cities that someone who accidentally kills someone could flee to in order to avoid members of the deceased’s family from exacting vengeance in the form of a blood killing

But perhaps a closer root for the tradition of Christian churches being used as places of sanctuary is 1 Kings 1, which contains an episode where someone clings to the horns of the altar in the temple as a means of ensuring that no harm would come to him.  His tactic appears to work here.  However, the tactic doesn’t work so well one chapter later, where another person attempts to secure safety by clinging to the horns of the altar, and is apparently struck down at the altar all the same.  

Christian churches – literally called sanctuaries – have often been treated as a place where no harm may come to those who run to them.  Results have been equally mixed.  Most notably, Thomas Becket, who learned the hard way that opposing King Henry II was a fatal mistake, and that even the sacredness of Canterbury Cathedral could save him from the king’s wrath.  In recent decades, the sanctuary movement  has made headlines in America, often in relationship to the issue of immigration.  Even in the last few years this notion of the church as a place of sanctuary has remained in our collective consciousness.   

It should be noted that there is nothing in US law that recognizes the idea of sanctuary in this sense.  On the books, a church is no different than any other building, and duly authorized officials are free to carry out their responsibilities regarding people inside a church just as they would be in a private residence or a corporate office building.  In practice though, there is something profoundly disturbing about the idea of government representatives dragging people out of a church to enforce the law upon them.  Thus, this occurence in Denmark raises some vague sense of impropriety although no law was broken.

The idea that a church can provide sanctuary to someone has persisted throughout history.  Only in rare instances did such sanctuary extend for prolonged periods of time.  Biblical cities of refuge were places where a fair hearing could be made before rash acts of revenge might be carried out against a potentially innocent person.  But the city could only remain a refuge if the person was actually innocent.  And only the most severe of crimes – the taking of human life – were to be dealt with under in this way.

The Iraqi’s in Denmark are not said to have broken any law, outside of being in Denmark illegally.  They sought asylum in Denmark, but were denied it.  Legally, they were to be deported to Iraq.  Hiding inside the church was their effort to avoid this course of events. 
I think it’s interesting that they sought a Christian church to hide in.  I wonder if they are Iraqi Christians, or if there is no similar cultural history of sanctuary being available in a mosque.  There are apparently mosques in Copenhagen, I wonder why they didn’t seek shelter there?  I also wonder what fate they hoped to avoid by being sent back to Iraq.  Were they worried about their safety?  Was it an economically motivated decision to try and stay in Denmark? 

The idea of sanctuary – whether legally recognized or not – is an interesting one.  It seems clear that governments in various places have been loathe to violate the physical integrity of a Christian place of worship for the purpose of enforcing immigration laws against people who have no other outstanding crimes against them.  Denmark apparently made a repatriation agreement with Iraq earlier in the year, and intends to return to Iraq some 240 Iraqis who have sought asylum in Denmark. 


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