Friday, February 2, 2007

Sanctuary in Canadian churches under TV spotlight
Sanctuary in Canadian churches under TV spotlight
1 Feb. 2007
By Rachel McHollister

AS SEVERAL churches across the country continue to provide shelter for people claiming to be refugees, a new documentary is questioning the federal government's handling of the issue.

Vision TV's current affairs program, 360 Vision, will air 'No Safe Place' February 5. Vision's capsule description calls the documentary an "investigation into . . . the practice of immigrants and refugees living in church basements to avoid deportation." It further states: "In the past most cases were successful, but now sanctuary has become a waste of time -- causing years of suffering, often with tragic outcomes."

The practice of Canadian churches giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants or refugee claimants continues a tradition dating back to the early years of Christianity. Some observers believe the Canadian government has been trying to put an end to the practice.

The Vision presentation profiles the experiences of refugees in sanctuaries throughout Canada, and asks: "Is Canada's government waging war on the Christian tradition of sanctuary?"

Vision claims the program is the first thing of its kind to be broadcast on prime time TV. The film focuses especially on two different families whose members have been separated because of federal immigration policy.

Producer Kevin O'Keefe told many refugees were interviewed for the program. While these two families are spotlighted, he noted, there are currently 12 reported cases of people taking refuge in Canadian churches.

"This does not mean that there are only 12 refugees," he said, "but means that there are 12 churches hosting a number of refugees, many of which aren't even Christian."

One particular story has stood out for O'Keefe: the plight of Iranian Amir Kazemian, who has lived in St. Michael's Anglican Church in Vancouver since the summer of 2004. Kazemian, he stated, "is the person known to have lived longest in a sanctuary in Canada."

Kazemian is in a legal battle with the federal government over deportation back to his home country, where he is certain he will be given the death penalty due to his acceptance of Christianity. Conversion from Islam to another faith is considered the ultimate sin by some Muslim regimes, and is punishable by the death penalty.

Iranian refugee claimant Amir Kazemian is seen in a light moment with one of his advocates, Canada's Anglican Archbishop Andrew Hutchison.
It is very hard to qualify for refugee status or even Canadian citizenship, stated O'Keefe, if the government does not feel a claimant's life will be in danger once deported back to their home country.

"If I am forced to return to Iran, I will no longer be able to practice my Christian faith," Kazemian told the Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS). "I will be separated from my aging mother, who has no other family in Canada; and I will be forced into imprisonment, torture and death."

He said this would not be the first time he would be facing such threats. He and several family members took a stand against the political system in Iran. This led to the torture of his father, and his own imprisonment and torture.

Kazemian and his mother applied for refugee status in Canada. His mother was accepted, but he was not -- even though their claims were both based on roughly the same details.

St. Michael's church officials and Kazemian's lawyer, Naomi Minwalla, are urging the government to let him remain in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. They recently made a new submission, which they feel makes a much stronger case than previously.

Minwalla told ACNS, "We hope that, on review of the new expert evidence and submissions that we filed, the Canadian Government will find the compassion within to grant Amir the emotional and physical safety of our country, that he so desperately needs."

O'Keefe said he believes police don't often raid churches because of the long tradition of Christian sanctuary. However, there has been one known case in Quebec City, where police raided St. Pierre Catholic Church and deported an Algerian man to the U.S. Within a year, the Algerian had U.S. refugee status.

"There is no law stopping the police from raiding the church," said O'Keefe, "but it is a long-lived tradition for illegal immigrants to be able to take refuge in a church and not be bothered by police."