Churches meet with government over sanctuary issue

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Canadian church representatives who met with Immigration Minister Judy Sgro included (from left): Rev. Phil Heinze, Jane Orion Smith, Bill Janzen, Archbishop Brendan O’Brien, Heather Macdonald and Rev. Jim Sinclair. The Anglican primate, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, also attended.

Canadian church leaders — including the Anglican primate — have agreed to meet again after an initial meeting Sept. 29 with federal Immigration Minister Judy Sgro in Ottawa to discuss concerns about Canada’s methods for reviewing refugee claims.

“I found it an encouraging meeting,” said Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Anglican primate (national archbishop). “The minister is prepared to honour the churches as being collaborators in refugee work with a great deal to offer this process. What we established was a consensus around some of those things and agreement to continue this dialogue.”

Another participant at the meeting, Catholic archbishop Brendan O’Brien, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it “signals a commitment of churches and government to work collaboratively to protect refugees.”

The church representatives — including leaders of the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Mennonite, Quaker and United denominations — urged Ms. Sgro to implement an appeals process for refugee claimants. In 2001, Parliament passed the Immigrant and Refugee Protection act, which provides for an appeal. Ms. Sgro’s predecessor, Denis Coderre, had promised to implement the process in 2002, but it has not occurred.

After the Ottawa meeting, Archbishop Hutchison said that a backlog of refugee cases must not be used to justify denial of a fair process, which includes a merit-based appeal. “Lives are at stake. It is not acceptable that justice be denied because too many people are demanding justice,” said the primate.

Refugee activist Mary Jo Leddy, who also attended the meeting, noted that “people are falling through cracks in the system. Real people in terrible distress show up at our doors, when they have nowhere else to turn.”

Churches and the government have been at odds recently over the issue of refugees. Across the country, several people having difficulty with refugee claims have sought sanctuary in churches as protection against deportation. In late July, Ms. Sgro said churches should stop harbouring refugee claimants since they are a security risk.

After the September meeting, Jane Orion Smith, general secretary of the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers), said, “As leaders rooted in the Christian faith, we called on our government not to link refugees with threats to national security, a dangerous association that fosters a climate of fear and hostility.”

Ms. Sgro’s press secretary, France Bureau, told the Journal that churches need to understand the government’s position, also. “The church only sees the person who filed the refugee claim. It’s important that they also see our side of the story,” she said, adding that the government plans to maintain consultation with churches.

Churches have said they believe that sanctuary is not the answer. “Our position has been that given the present refugee process where one single individual makes the judgment whether one is given refugee status to stay in the country or not is absolutely too fallible. Individuals are capable of an error in judgment and when people appeal to us for sanctuary we offer that only as a last resort because we honestly feel there’s been a misjudgment here,” said Archbishop Hutchison after the Ottawa meeting.

With files from Art Babych in Ottawa

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Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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