Cohn: Keep Religion Out Of Our Refugee Laws

Cohn: Keep religion out of our refugee laws

By Martin Regg Cohn
Deputy Editorial Page Editor
Published On Tue Feb 09 2010

Nearly 30,000 people claim refugee status in Canada annually. Up to 12,000 are given sanctuary by the Canadian government every year a rate higher than any other nation.

Not high enough, it seems, for those who are setting themselves up as a higher authority with the ultimate right to grant sanctuary.

Under Canadian law, the final decision to rescind deportation on humanitarian or compassionate grounds supposedly rests with a minister of the crown, not a minister of God. But across Canada, preachers are taking in failed refugee claimants who have exhausted avenues of appeal with the Immigration and Refugee Board, the Federal Court and the Canada Border Services Agency.

In Etobicoke, a pastor is rendering his own judgment on the case of Gankhuyag Bumuutseren, a former Chinese government spy who informed on political activists both in the United States and his native Mongolia. Declared by Canadian authorities to be inadmissible as a refugee, he has found refuge in St. James Humber Bay Anglican Church.

Rev. Murray Henderson says he has been harbouring the admitted spy on humanitarian grounds since last August. In a letter written last July, he noted approvingly that Bumuutseren and his family “received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and became members of the Christian church.” Now, the church is sticking by them, offering both sanctuary and advocacy.

It is an unwritten tradition that a church, temple or mosque is inviolable. In medieval England, a fugitive could not be captured within the precincts of a church. But back then, kings exercised one-man rule while claiming divine providence.

It is an anachronism. The rule of law is what makes Canada different from other lands where gunmen take their battles into sacred places to evade capture.

It is a desecration of holy places to turn them into armed fortresses, forcing the police to lay siege in overseas shootouts. And it is a distortion of our own democratic traditions to turn churches into hideouts, forcing the police to lie low.

But it is catching on. There have been more than 50 sanctuary cases involving about 300 people since 1983, according to research by Prof. Randy Lippert of the University of Windsor.

In Vancouver, another admitted spy facing deportation, former KGB agent Mikhail Lennikov, has put himself beyond the reach of Canadian authorities by moving into the First Lutheran Church in the city's east end. He sought refuge last June, after a Federal Court rejected his final bid to stay the deportation order, just a couple of months before Bumuutseren walked into an Etobicoke church.

Both spies are inadmissible under the terms of our Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The theory is that if you're working for a country's spy agency, which is in the business of persecuting your own people, it's a stretch to later claim that you are among the persecuted, entitled to refugee status.

In practice, every case is different, which is why both former spies were allowed to make their case to the Canadian authorities arguing that they were unwilling dupes. In both cases, their claims were rejected. Unhappy with the results of Canada's due process, they opted for God's law, courtesy of their pastoral enablers.

A few months after the two ex-spooks turned up in churches, an American war resister obtained sanctuary in a United Church in Vancouver. Rodney Watson had been ordered deported.

Then there's the notorious case of Laibar Singh, who sought refuge in a Sikh temple after being ordered deported for filing a bogus claim. When he finally returned to his native Punjab, Singh confessed to a reporter that his tales of persecution were a confection and his motives purely economic.

Many of the cases drag on for years because the government prefers to wait people out rather than flush them out. The Conservatives are taking a harder line rhetorically, but tiptoeing gingerly around church sanctuaries. Under a Liberal government, Algerian Mohamed Cherfi was snatched from a Quebec church after he had come to Canada from the U.S.

Cabinet ministers of both parties consider it impolitic to cross men of the cloth. But when preachers become the protectors of people with no right to remain in Canada, where do they draw the line? Do they determine who is worthy of sanctuary and who is undeserving? Or do they refuse to pass judgment, automatically granting refuge to anyone who shows up at their door, no matter how grave their transgression or how dubious their defences?

I thought we rejected sharia law for Canada. So why should preachers constitute a court of final appeal for refugees?

Our refugee system isn't perfect. But I'm not convinced pastors are infallible in their judgment of refugees or that they're right to suspend all judgment.

Martin Regg Cohn writes Tuesday.