Uniting churches offer sanctuary

palm sunday march
Momentum is building ahead of the upcoming Palm Sunday Walk for Justice for Refugees.

The past month has seen an incredible community response to the February High Court ruling that legalised Australia’s offshore detention regime.

The verdict sparked an unprecedented response from churches throughout Australia. A number of Uniting churches declared their intention to offer sanctuary to people facing deportation to Nauru.

The concept of sanctuary dates back to the Old Testament. It was enacted in British law during the War of the Roses in the 1500s, when fleeing soldiers would hide in local churches.

St John’s Uniting Church in Essendon was the first church in Victoria to publicly state its intention to invoke the ancient Christian tradition. Rev Mark Dunn, minister at St John’s UC, explained why he was prepared to offer sanctuary.

“I’ve been an ordained minister for 36 years and this is one of those times where I think it’s time to stand up and be counted,” he said.

“I’ve had a good relationship with police and the law. Years ago I was a police chaplain, so it’s not something that I, in any way, take lightly.”

Mr Dunn was a visiting chaplain at Maribyrnong detention centre for five years and had many conversations with people seeking asylum. He believes Australians should stop demonising vulnerable people and remember they are human beings who simply want protection from persecution and abuse.

“They have names, they have stories, they are human people just like you and I. Their hopes and dreams are not a lot different to ours,” he said.

“They want a place to call home, they want a place to be safe in and feel that they are valued, loved and respected.”

Other Uniting Churches that have publicly declared their intention to offer sanctuary are: Manningham, St Andrew’s (Chelsea), Habitat, Croydon North, Brunswick, Mountview and St Andrew’s (Fairfield).

Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan issued a pastoral statement on the legal ramifications of providing sanctuary.

“For those congregations who have decided to extend sanctuary, God bless you for your courage and compassion,” Mr McMillan said.

“The Assembly is working with the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce and the lawyers who are looking after the 267 people.

“Our first priority is to ensure that nothing we do has harmful consequences for those people seeking asylum. We are also working to gain clarity about the legal issues involved in offering sanctuary and will keep in close contact with the congregations most likely to have the offer accepted.”

The sanctuary movement captured national and international media attention. Snap rallies took place throughout the country as refugee supporters called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to “let them stay”. Premiers from all six states pledged to take in the 267 asylum seekers facing imminent deportation. Teachers displayed banners at school and universities to protest against the potential deportation of their students.

The Palm Sunday Walk for Refugees is an opportunity to continue this push for a more compassionate and humane response to people seeking asylum.

Lisa Stewart, Glen Iris Uniting Church minster and a regular visitor to MITA (Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre), explained why she will she be attending the march.

“As Christians, we are called to speak up for justice, to speak out against injustice. Words are powerful things, but unless our words are followed up and filled out with action they are in danger of becoming hollow rhetoric,” Ms Stewart said.

“The Palm Sunday March for Refugees is a powerful, eloquent, symbolic act signalling our commitment to walk our talk, wherever it may lead.”

Last year’s walk attracted more than 15,000 people to the streets of Melbourne. Twelve months on, more than 1,400 people remain trapped on Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. Under the Turnbull government, onshore detention times have reached a record high with an average of 445 days.

The Uniting Church stands in support with refugees and people seeking asylum. Join the marches in either Launceston or Melbourne on Palm Sunday (20 March) and walk in solidarity with the world’s displaced people.


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