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Church vs state in battle to keep asylum seekers

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Christian leaders across Australia want to avoid a “church versus state” showdown on the steps of cathedrals, should the Federal Government intervene in their plan to house asylum seekers in sanctuaries.

On Thursday, a national body representing Australian Christian churches unveiled its scheme to provide 267 asylum seekers – of which 90 were children – with refuge before they were returned to detention centres on Nauru or Manus Island.

There were 37 babies believed to be among the 267.

High-profile Christian figures from around Australia have backed the plan, which aimed to take advantage of an old English law for “sanctuary” rooted in the Bible’s Old Testament.

• Churches offer hope to asylum seekers
• Offshore detention is ‘government-sanctioned cruelty’
• High Court throws out Nauru challenge

Senior figures from the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT), which is backed by National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA), said they don’t want to see authorities entering churches to “drag people away”.

“We don’t want a big church versus state confrontation on the steps of a cathedral,” ACRT executive officer Misha Coleman told The New Daily.

She said that the government’s “high degree of surveillance” on the asylum seekers in Australia meant the churches wanted to keep their plans as secretive as possible.

“The biggest logistical issue is that families in community detention are under a really high degree of Border Force surveillance,” Ms Coleman said.

“A lot of churches haven’t made themselves public and the most successful scenario is that this will be done very quietly.

“We don’t want to disclose the arrangements of any of the churches involved.”

ACRT chair and Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Reverend Dr Peter Catt, advised authorities against entering his church.

“This is really a moral stand and it wouldn’t be a good look, I don’t think, for someone to enter a church and to drag people away,” Dr Catt said.

Nauru asylum seeker camp.
The centre on Nauru has been plagued by allegations of harm toward its inhabitants. Photo: ABC

In a statement on behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference, Bishop Vincent Long said the Catholic Church opposed detention.

“The Catholic Church is prepared to collaborate with other community organisations to provide support for asylum seekers,” Bishop Long said.

The legality of the sanctuary measure, referred to in the Bible’s Old Testament, has never been tested under Australian law.

The principle was created as a way for the church to offer God’s protection to people under civic oppression.

Given it exists in English Law, it could be argued that it applies in Australia. Ms Coleman said that ACRT had been conducting inquiries into the legality of the plan.

There were officially 10 Anglican, Uniting and Catholic churches willing to take asylum seekers in Australia, however Ms Coleman said ACRT had been inundated with offers from other churches.

The New Daily asked the Department of Immigration and Border Protection if it would remove asylum seekers from church sanctuaries should they be housed there.

It said that was a “hypothetical” question and referred us to Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton’s comments on Thursday.

“We’re not doing that [dragging people from churches] … we’ll work with groups,” Mr Dutton told Sky News.

“In the end every Australian has to abide by the Australian law.

“I have been to Nauru, many of these people [who oppose offshore detention] haven’t, and it is important to recognise the hospital Australia has funded there is at least the same standard … as some hospitals in regional Australia.”

‘Terribly distressing’ situation

An Anglican priest who is willing to use his church as a sanctuary for asylum seekers told The New Daily that he and his peers were “compelled” to offer such assistance.

“People who are persecuted in their own land come to Australia only to find it happens to them here as well,” Anglican Parish of Gosford’s Father Rod Bower said.

asylum seekers
Mr Bower was a long time opponent of Nauru. Photo: ABC

“It’s [Nauru] not a safe place. The locals don’t want these people there and we have no ability to protect them there.

“Mr Dutton has been a little bit threatening this morning by suggesting legal action.

“We are terribly distressed about the High Court decision, it can only administer the law as it stands though.”

On Wednesday, the High Court did not uphold an appeal on the legality of Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers.

Former commissioner for children and young people in Victoria and former Jesuit Social Services CEO Bernard Geary told The New Daily the churches must be careful of not implementing a “ramshackle”.

He stressed that churches were acting with “courageous” and good intentions, but said when dealing with children and families, there needed to be some expert input in systems.

“I don’t in any way believe that any of this is done with anything but good intentions but it needs to happen in a systemic way,” Mr Geary said.

“Churches and governments need to have formal agreements to do these things which acknowledges the incredible vulnerability of these children.

“[For the government] to treat these kids as if they are an item on a shelf is just dreadful.”


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