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Church And State

By Sean Condon

Friday October 22, 2004

.h3 Sanctuary at St. Michael’s

On a wall in St. Michael’s Anglican Church on East Broadway, there is a collection of Post-it notes with different names and different dates. This is a pool started by some congregation members on when they think Amir Kazemian, the Iranian refugee who has been given sanctuary at the church, will finally be granted release.

Most of the dates are relatively soon, but a few have started to put down guesses for next year. Considering it was thought Kazemian was only going to be at the church for a few weeks when he first arrived last June, there is an unnerving sense that he might be here for a while. But Kazemian says he’s willing to wait it out because if it weren’t for the sanctuary at St. Michael’s, he’d be dead.

“Here has changed my life totally,” says Kazemian. “I’ve never received this kind of kindness in my life. They are my guardian angels. I am in the danger and my life is in danger. If they send me back, no one can hear me.”

Despite the pain and worry Kazemian suffers from being locked up in a small room at the church for four months, there are other sanctuary cases in Canada now entering their second year. There are now a total of five cases in Canada. The lack of action by the Canadian government has prompted churches across Canada to declare October 17-24 as Sanctuary Week in hope that the government will address these cases and fix Canada’s broken refugee system.

The debate over church sanctuary was vaulted into the political hot seat last March when Quebec City police did the unimaginable and pulled an Algerian man out of church–violating the sanctity of a centuries-old tradition. In July, Immigration Minister Judy Sgro pushed it one step further when she said that churches should stop acting as a “back door” for refugees. But despite the increasing pressure from the government to give up sanctuary, St. Michael’s isn’t backing down.

“I think religious leaders in the best traditions have always stood separate from the authorities,” says Rev. Emilie Smith, the junior priest at St. Michael’s. “I think there are cases where there’s not really an option. You have to stand with those in danger of death.”

Kazemian’s case exposes the serious flaws within Canada’s refugee system. He came to Canada in 1997 after being imprisoned and tortured by Iranian authorities for eight months. His crime was that his father was a member of a democratic opposition party, who was put in jail and tortured for seven years. But Kazemian’s refugee claim was denied on the grounds that the judge didn’t believe him. However, three years later Kazemian’s mother made a refugee claim, in which Kazemian acted as a witness, and her claim was accepted on the exact same grounds.

The problem is that Canada does not allow refugee claimants to make an appeal based on merit. They can only get an appeal if there was a technical or legal error during the trial. It also doesn’t take into account the lack of legal resources refugees have or translation problems, both of which played a big factor in Kazemian’s case.

Smith says when St. Michael’s–which had never offered sanctuary to a refugee before–learned the circumstances surrounding his case, the decision was easy. But Kazemian and the four other cases in Canada are the lucky ones.

“Even though sanctuary is important, those five refugees represent thousands of refugees that don’t have sanctuary,” says Harsha Walia, a member of the refugee advocacy group No One Is Illegal. “It’s not enough to demand sanctuary, but we need a complete overhaul of the refugee system.”

Canada has become increasingly hostile to refugees since 9/11. It has initiated a number of repressive laws, including the recent Safe Third Country agreement with the United States, which will send roughly one-third of its refugees back to the US. Sgro promised to hold talks with each of the five churches and make a decision at the end of this month, but Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan made a similar promise during this year’s election and no one has heard a thing. In the meantime, Kazemian will have to try and get comfortable-he may be at St. Michael’s for a while.