Sanctuary, Old Idea, New Movement

July 2007, Sarah Brown & Tania L. Haas

New York, NY—Last August, Elvira Arellano moved into a Chicago church in order to avoid a deportation order that would separate her from her 7-year-old American son. Almost a year later, she’s still living in the church.

Eight other undocumented immigrants have since followed Arellano’s lead and sought refuge in religious institutions across the country. Their supporters say that such acts of civil disobedience represent a new branch of religious advocacy, called The New Sanctuary Movement.

But sanctuary is a concept that has been engrained, and documented, for centuries.

In ancient times, the practice of religious sanctuary was common throughout the world and across most faiths.

“The whole idea of sanctuary cities and congregations comes from Hebrew scripture. We are commanded to love and protect the stranger,” said Rabbi Michael Feinberg, the executive director of the Interfaith Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition.

In the 13th century BCE, the ancient Hebrews designated six cities of refuge so that anyone who killed a person unintentionally might flee there to escape retribution by a blood relative.

Numbers 35:9 through 15 of the New American Standard Bible reads, in part: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select for yourselves cities to be your cities of refuge, that the manslayer who has killed any person unintentionally may flee there. The cities, which you are to give, shall be your six cities of refuge. ‘You shall give three cities across the Jordan and three cities in the land of Canaan; they are to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.”

By the 10th century BCE, a tradition of altar sanctuary had developed in Israel. When Solomon succeeded his father, David, as king over Israel, his brother Adonijah, who had attempted to usurp the throne, fled and took refuge at the altar in “the tent of the Lord,” according to the book of I Kings. King Solomon pardoned Adonijah and sent him home without punishment.

Sanctuary appears in many Greek and Roman literary texts as well. Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, made the Palatine Hill an asylum for fugitives. He erected a temple to a god named Asylæus—from whom comes the word asylum—and in this he “received and protected all, delivering none back, neither the servant to his master, the debtor to his creditor, nor the murderer into the hands of the magistrate, saying that it was a privileged place, and they could so maintain it by an order of the holy oracle, insomuch that the city grew presently very populous.”

The Theodosian Code in 392 AD was the first clear record of legal reference to sanctuary in the Christian tradition. Fugitives could be fed and lodged only in churchyards and surrounding church precincts, not the actual churches. Sanctuary did not apply to public debtors, Jews, heretics or apostates.

The practice continued for centuries, with varying rules, interceptors and restrictions. In 887 AD, Alfred the Great granted temporary asylum to criminals, with punishment for violating the church protection. Sanctuary empowered clergy to intercede on behalf of fugitives and to help reach a settlement.

In the early 16th century, Henry VIII designated eight sanctuary towns where fugitives could gain protection, consolidating his jurisdiction over the independent counties. Growing royal control over the practice of sanctuary made it more burdensome to sanctuary seekers. As the monarchy gained power, the authority of the church diminished. Eventually the privilege of sanctuary ended in 1624 when the parliament abolished it. Widespread abuse and increasing regulation, like civil judicial systems, had rendered the practice ineffectual.

Today, there is no legal right to asylum in churches, but immigration authorities tend not to raid them. Despite no legal standing, the right of sanctuary has been invoked numerous times in North American history.

In the years before the Civil War, churches participated in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to free states in direct violation of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Church members based their aid on an interpretation of the Bible regarding the treatment of slaves and hospitality toward strangers and did not classify what they did as sanctuary. Nonetheless, church participation in the Underground Railroad prefigures the New Sanctuary movement today.

In Canada, the first Sikh temple built in 1908 served as a sanctuary for men immigrating to Canada but unable to bypass the border guards because of an immigration policy called the Continuous Passage Act. Canadian law stated that no one was to enter the country unless they had made a “continuous passage” to get to its borders—this prevented a huge influx of immigrants from the unwanted countries like India. But Indian men came anyway and went through the U.S. to get to their families and employers in Canada, said Satwinder Bains, the director for the Center of Indo-Canadian studies at the University College of the Fraser Valley.

“The temple was built on a high hill at that time. At the top of the flag pole outside the temple was a light. The story goes that if the light was on. It was safe to come across the border. If the light was not on, don’t come, because it wasn’t safe.”

In Sikhism, one of the world’s youngest religions, sanctuary is a tenet of their principles of public service and selflessness. The gurdwara, the holy place of worship, also acts as a community center and shelter for the vulnerable and homeless. Visitors of all faiths are offered food and shelter. In July, a Sikh temple in British Columbia became the first case of sanctuary in a religious institution other than a church in Canada.

“I think there’s a tradition of sanctuary in most faiths. It’s against the religion [Sikhism] to turn anyone away,” said Angad Bhalla, a community minister at Judson Memorial Church and an organizer for reforming the immigration system.

The New Sanctuary Movement has congregational members from all faiths: all sorts of Christian denominations, Islam and Jewish. There are currently 24 congregations signed to the movement in New York, and the list is growing.

The New Sanctuary Movement was officially started in May 2007, but its roots originated in March 2006, about five months before Arellano’s move into the Adalberto United Methodist Church.

In March Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said he would instruct his priests and others working in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to disregard provisions of House Bill HR4437 that would criminalize providing humanitarian aid to persons without first checking their legal status. Cardinal Mahony’s statements instigated religious leaders of all faiths to adapt the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, where churches offered refuge to thousands of Central American refugees fleeing human rights violations, to today’s context.

The New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) focuses on the livelihood of the immigrant population in America. Through public advocacy, legal representation and financial assistance, religious institutions of all faiths pledge to support immigrants, who they think, suffer under current and proposed legislation. For some churches, this support includes offering physical sanctuary on their property.