Refugees and the cities of sanctuary

The story of the Huguenots may have some lessons for us today.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Rashed Al Mashhadani, an Iraqi displaced from al-Zammar district, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul with his family of 15, shaves a customer at Sewdinan 3 camp, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Jan. 24, 2017.

In one of my high school French classes, which included a lot of history along with poetry and irregular verbs, we had to memorize a short list of Three Really Dumb Things That Louis XIV Did.

Two of those have faded from memory. The one I do remember was the Edict of Fontainebleau, which Louis issued to revoke the Edict of Nantes.

The earlier edict, signed by Louis’s grandfather King Henry IV in 1598, guaranteed French Protestants some degree of religious liberty and civil rights. (Edict is from Latin roots meaning “to speak out,” or proclaim. Think of it as an early form of executive order.)

Louis’s edict, signed in October 1685, precipitated the exodus from France of some 400,000 Huguenots – a commercial and entrepreneurial class that France might have done better to retain than to reject. They and their descendants include such notables as Paul Revere, the American patriot, and Sir John Houblon, the founder of the Bank of England.

I was reminded of all this the other day when a news report mentioned in passing that it was this Huguenot diaspora that brought the word refugee into English – a straight borrowing from the French réfugié. These refugees found sanctuary, as we might say today, throughout non-Roman Catholic Europe and in the American Colonies and South Africa.

Sanctuary, in the beginning, meant a “building set apart for holy worship,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The word came into English in the early 14th century, ultimately from the Latin sanctuarium, a sacred place or shrine.

Since the first centuries of the Christian era, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, “fugitives or debtors enjoyed immunity from arrest in certain churches.” So by the end of the 14th century, sanctuary had acquired a “transferred sense of ‘immunity from punishment.’ ”

Note that fugitive is related to refuge and refugee. The latter two are rooted in the idea of “a place to flee back to.” Note the “re,” which so often means “back” or “again.” All three words stem from a Latin word meaning “to flee.” But fugitive has picked up the sense of “someone fleeing justice” or “an outlaw.”

The idea of not just churches but entire cities as “cities of refuge” or “sanctuary cities,” predates Christianity: The Hebrew Bible records the call to establish six such cities, where “a person who had accidentally killed someone could take shelter, without fear of being pursued and killed by the victim’s family,” as an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz explained a few months ago. 

The writer noted that this was very different from the “sanctuary cities” that have so many people energized today – even as it’s unclear just what a sanctuary city is.

Indeed. But there are common threads here. How does a society deal with strangers on the lam – especially those who worship differently? We have been here before – even down to the executive orders.

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