Sanctuary concept gaining a foothold in Western Europe. Religious activists offer refuge despite government opposition
Chicago — To the French, it is known as hebergement. To the Germans, Kirchen Asyl. In Dutch, Toevluchtsoord Asyl. But it is all one religious concept -- known in the United States as the sanctuary movement -- dedicated to giving safe haven to political refugees. A public movement, based on the concept that began in the US in 1982 to help Guatemalans and Salvadoreans, it appears to be gaining strength in Europe, where Kurds from Turkey, Tamils from Sri Lanka, Zaireans, and Chileans are seeking political asylum.
During the economic belt-tightening of the last few years, European governments have become much more conservative in their immigration-asylum policies, and the climate for third-world nationals there has changed drastically, says Gothard Klinger, a Swiss activist who in 1982 helped to found the European Committee for the Defense of Refugees and Immigrants, known as CEDRI.
In particular, the asylum question has generated controversy in traditionally conservative Switzerland, where the number of asylums granted has plummeted from 90 percent to 12 percent in the last seven years, Mr. Klinger says. The tiny, landlocked nation has a population of 6.3 million, including 1 million legal aliens and an estimated 20,000 refugees who have asked for political asylum, says Arthur Burkhardt, Swiss consul general in Chicago.
Like the American activists, Swiss sanctuary workers, centered in progressive parishes, are fighting tightening government restrictions. Last fall, a Reformed Church in Seebach, a suburb of Zurich, gave sanctuary to 22 Chileans that the government had ordered deported. Roman Catholic and Reformed Church parishes in Lausanne have also taken in refugees.
And like their US counterparts, sanctuary activists in Europe are at odds with federal laws and are subject to prosecution.
``The government is in charge of refugees,'' Mr. Burkhardt says. ``The church cannot take the place of the government.''
Paul Widmer, a Swiss Embassy spokesman in Washington, D.C., adds: ``The government has to be against this movement. If the government orders something and you try to obstruct it, what else can a government's position be?''
This month, trials similar to the one earlier this year of 11 sanctuary workers in Tucson, Ariz., began in Lausanne and Geneva for workers accused of illegally aiding refugees.
As do American officials, Swiss officials are playing down the strength of the movement. ``It is not a general movement in Switzerland as it is in the US,'' Mr. Widmer says. ``We just have one or two cases.''
But Swiss activists like Mr. Klinger disagree. ``It's very much spreading. The threat of imprisonment by the government has had the effect of making the movement grow,'' he says, although he can provide no estimate of the number of Swiss churches that have declared sanctuary.
In May, 400 delegates from 42 countries meeting in Limans, France, passed a resolution calling not only for the support of the eight US sanctuary workers convicted of aiding illegal aliens that month in Tucson, but ``to follow the example of the sanctuary movement'' in Europe. And in August, a Netherlands conference on sanctuary passed a similar resolution.
The worsening economic climate in Europe is not the only reason European governments have changed their attitudes toward refugees in recent years, Klinger says. He cites Switzerland's business, industrial, and government ties to the anticommunist governments that the refugees are fleeing.
``Before, the refugees came from Eastern [European] countries, so they fit in well with Swiss foreign policy on the issue of the cold war,'' Klinger says, noting that many of the previous refugees were well educated and white.
Meanwhile, American sanctuary leaders are actively encouraging their European counterparts to organize. In August, two of the convicted sanctuary workers, the Rev. John Fife, a Presbyterian minister who is widely regarded as a cofounder of the American movement, and Methodist Peggy Hutchinson attended the Netherlands conference where they said they established ``formal'' ties with European sanctuary activists. And last spring, Chicago sanctuary activist Michael McConnell met with progressive religious leaders in Europe.
Mr. McConnell, cofounder of the Chicago Religious Task Force, says the European movement is ``just beginning'' to get on its feet, and that in some countries, like Switzerland, it is likely to take churches longer to declare sanctuary since many of them depend on government funding.
The future of sanctuary is not limited to North America and Europe, Mr. McConnell says. Religious communities in Sri Lanka, Australia, and South Africa are studying the movement. It has, he says, international appeal because it seeks to aid refugees whose plights are created by governments that foster oppressive political conditions.
``I think that the more churches around the world that declare sanctuary, the more churches can take on governments,'' he says.
But one US official who has been highly critical of the sanctuary movement says its international expansion is aimed at reviving the movement's waning news-media interest.
The fact that the movement is refocusing on Europe ``reaffirms the flatness of the sanctuary movement in the US,'' says Donald M. Reno Jr., special assistant US attorney who successfully prosecuted the Rev. Mr. Fife, Miss Hutchinson, and six other Tucson sanctuary workers. ``It is not an issue of media interest anymore and has lost what appeal it once had. So I guess it's off to another continent.''