CHRISTIAN ROOTS IN THE INSTITUTION OF ASYLUM
Finally, it should be noted that there is a historic relationship between Christian ministry to refugees and the secular institution of asylum. While modern states hold the legal right to grant asylum to persons seeking protection, the tradition of asylum and its religious counterpart – sanctuary – can be traced back to biblical times. In the Hebrew scripture, there were six cities of refuge where those guilty of certain acts like manslaughter (crimes without intention) could safely flee to in the region.6 These cities had links to former religious sanctuaries and were designated as places of refuge. The sacred nature of refuge was also present in the ancient sanctuaries of Greek and Roman religions.
With Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, churches in the West were given authority to grant sanctuary in their premises as well as to serve as advocates for those under their protection. These roles were important as the church undertook to “exercise mercy and dispense justice in a world that had little time for either.”7 In the church’s eyes, the authority of secular rulers was given by the grace of God. Thus, the right of Christian sanctuary was a divine prerogative. However, increasing conflicts between the church and the state over institutional power saw the church losing influence over time.
After church sanctuary was repealed in England in the 17th century, the civil authorities sought to exercise exclusive power to grant asylum and protection. The opportunity arose when the persecuted Calvinist minority in France called Huguenots were offered permanent asylum in England by the Crown. This may have been the first use of the English term ‘refugee’ as understood in modern international law.
Even as the legal right of church sanctuary ended, the practice as a moral right did not. Christians and churches continued to follow their conscience by protecting and sheltering those fleeing persecution, slavery and death. This tradition continues into the present as churches work to create places of safety, welcome and inclusion for those in search of refuge in their city or country. By offering welcome to the most needy of strangers, Christians seek to bless the encounters between nation-states, communities, citizens and unprotected persons in the name of the Lord. And in so doing, the two questions that churches must always ask are: “Did we see Christ in them? Did they see Christ in us?” 8