Whether they sleep on the church floor in their sleeping bags or stay in the basement of the fellowship hall, they share an existence in what has come to be called ”sanctuary”. This term refers to foreigners without residency permits who take refuge in churches in order to avoid being sent back to their home countries by the local authorities.
In recent years, this form of sanctuary has been taken advantage of more and more. Motivated by humanitarian considerations, congregations from various denominations are offering these foreigners a place to stay. Their assessment of the fate awaiting these people on their return home is different from that of the government. At issue is whether or not these foreigners will be able to return safely or whether they will face the perils of political persecution, torture or even the death penalty.
In Germany alone there are annually between one and four hundred asylum seekers whose requests have been denied living in such sanctuaries. Across Europe this figure has grown to approximately ten thousand since 1980 when the principle of religious sanctuary experienced its renaissance.
The Netherlands serves as a model for the sanctuary movement within Europe; outside of Europe the United States provides a further example. Holland’s congregations were among the first to take in such asylum seekers. They also tried to establish a network of those sympathetic to this cause throughout Europe.
A prominent feature of the sanctuary movement in the German-language countries is its commitment to offering on-going protection in a large number of individual cases. Moreover, in these states this movement has given rise to a particularly lively discussion both within the church and in the public at large on the legitimacy of extending the protection of sanctuary to a modern-day setting. Outside of the Federal Republic of Germany, sanctuary is provided in Switzerland and to a lesser extent in Austria.
A similar discussion is going on in the UK where immigration law is being interpreted in an increasingly restrictive manner and where, for this reason, sanctuary is being extended on a regular basis. The foremost Scandinavian country to attach great importance to sanctuary is Norway, where, in 1993, seven hundred Kosovar Albanians were simultaneously receiving shelter in one hundred and forty church buildings. In Sweden and Denmark as well churches have repeatedly offered sanctuary to those in need.
This is also being practiced in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain. In 1996, international attention came to be focused on Paris, where a large number of churches were occupied. This was repeated in Barcelona and in other cities throughout Spain in early 2001. In each case several hundred foreigners were involved. In these countries, sanctuary serves as a means of protest against the prevailing political attitude towards foreigners, and at the same time keeps those fleeing oppressive regimes from becoming homeless. In the 1990s in southeastern Europe, amidst the chaos of conflicts in the aftermath of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, there were isolated cases of people taking shelter in church buildings.
On the whole, this experience with sanctuary today demonstrates that even in our secularized societies of the 21st century churches still embody places where shelter can be found. Those who have escaped oppression in their own countries may be left alone to live for months or sometimes even years in sanctuary. Government agencies frequently shy away from using police force to remove them even though the law would permit this in most cases.
And yet this offer of sanctuary, taken for granted in the social order of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, has no legal basis today. For this reason the subject regularly gives rise to heated discussions between clergy and state as well as in public about its legal status in a sovereign state ruled by law.
Those critical of sanctuary argue that in granting it church members are claiming special rights that they are no longer entitled to today; this, they believe, poses a threat to the rule of law. Proponents counter that the issue of sanctuary amounts to a conflict between what is legal and what is just; a conflict that a strong democracy can and must endure. Moveover, the practice of granting sanctuary is in keeping with the fundamental right of religious freedom.
The conflict between church and state concerning this modern form of sanctuary has now been extensively researched for the first time by Matthias Morgenstern. This academic work, the product of four years of doctoral study at the University of Augsburg in Germany under the tutelage of Professor Theo Stammen (political science), offers a complete look at sanctuary since it first appeared in the early 1980s. Taking Germany as an example, this work focuses on the practical situation, the concrete conflicts, the public controversy as well as on the resulting theoretical and constitutional issues.
This book also provides extensive treatment of the historical and cross-border perspectives relevant to this subject. It first traces the historical lines of development and then draws comparisons to occurrences in western and eastern Europe as well as in North America. The situation for the German-speaking neighbors, Austria and Switzerland, is given particularly detailed treatment. In the context of this international comparison, the influence of the relationship between church and state on governmental reactions to sanctuary are investigated.
The print edition of this study addresses itself to those interested from an academic point of view as well as to those whose interest grows out of their practical involvement with this subject. In addition to its strong academic grounding, this book distinguishes itself in its clear use of language and an easy-to-follow presentation. Today’s sanctuary is documented and analyzed in its essential aspects.