ACT News


Canberra Uniting Church will accept appeals for sanctuary from refugees

Canberra's Uniting Church congregations would welcome refugees seeking sanctuary from deportation to Manus Island or Nauru as a result of Wednesday's High Court ruling "with open doors, open hearts, and open tables", church leaders said on Thursday.

"It's called civil disobedience and churches have been doing it for a long time," the Reverend Anne Ryan of the Tuggeranong Uniting Church at Erindale said.

While Canberra's Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian communities are still deciding if they would accept requests for sanctuary, their leaders are sympathetic to the plight of almost 270 men, women and children now in limbo following the High Court's decision to uphold the legitimacy of offshore processing.

The Anglican Dean of Brisbane, the Reverend Dr Peter Catt, responded by offering sanctuary at St. John's Cathedral on Thursday. Other Anglican churches and Uniting churches in Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, where all of the affected individuals are living, quickly followed suit.

Sanctuary is an ancient concept, with its roots in the Old Testament, under which the oppressed could go to a designated city or temple [later a church] and seek protection.

The Reverend Elenie Poulos​, who is leading the Uniting Church's national response to the High Court decision, said while none of the affected refugees, who include more than 70 children, lived in Canberra it was not impossible some would seek sanctuary here.


"If they did I am confident they would be welcomed," she said. "Canberra's [Uniting Church] congregations are very much on the same page as the rest of the church on this issue."

Vanessa Crimmins​, chairperson of the Canberra Region Presbytery, brought three local ministers, Ms Ryan, the Reverend Chris Lockley​ of St Margaret's in Watson, Hackett and St James in Curtin, and  the Reverend Mark Faulkner of Gungahlin together to speak to Fairfax on Thursday afternoon.

Ms Crimmins​ said a compassionate response to people seeking sanctuary was "a part of Christianity's mission statement".

Mr  Lockley​ said the first thing his congregation would likely do if they were asked for sanctuary would be "to say yes".

"Then we would look at what strengths we had [within ourselves] and work with the broader community to help in any way we could," he said.

Mr Faulkner, whose Gungahlin congregation is multi-cultural and diverse and already includes many refugees and asylum seekers, said the issue was bigger than the 267 people known to be affected by Wednesday's decision so far.

"Our politicians were very eager to commit us to `shock and awe' and going to war in Iraq and elsewhere all those years ago," he said.

"We are now living with the consequences. We are dressing it [hostility to asylum seekers and refugees] up as stopping people from drowning at sea; as about stopping the boats. But this is also about forcing people to live with the loss of hope."

All said while there were no easy answers,  asylum seekers and the Australian people deserved better than the demonisation of the vulnerable and the adoption of three word slogans to explain away complex and highly nuanced issues.

"It is not just about these people; it is about who Australians are choosing to be," Ms Ryan said.

"David Morrison said `the standard we walk past is the standard we accept'. We're not accepting this."

Mr Lockley said Australia was a rich country; especially when compared to the places many asylum seekers were fleeing.

"It looks as if we are becoming a very selfish people," he said. "This diminishes us [Australians] as much as [our actions] diminish them [the asylum seekers]."

None of the church leaders believed the government would send police or immigration officers into a church to forcibly remove someone who had sought sanctuary even though the concept almost certainly had no legal validity.

"Not even Tony Abbott would have done that," one said.