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Criminals and Refugees Are Seeking Sanctuary in Churches, and Governments Have No Idea What to Do

Holy spaces are still safe spaces for many on the run.

This story appears in the November Issue of VICE.

This August, Mikhail Lennikov surrendered himself to the Canadian authorities after evading deportation for six years. An ex-KGB agent, Lennikov sought refuge in Canada after outing his old affiliates, but he was denied asylum and was meant to be deported in 2009. A day before deportation was scheduled, however, Vancouver's First Lutheran Church granted him sanctuary. And authorities just let that ride.

Governments have historically accepted some form of sanctuary, whereby criminals touch holy ground, call base, and mitigate secular punishments, for centuries. But modern states (and even most modern churches) have long rejected allowances for the practice, making Lennikov's case seem anachronistic. Yet he didn't pull this holy hat trick out of nowhere.

Over the past few decades, dozens of refugees have sought and attained sanctuary from deportation in churches in both the US and Canada. This was especially common in Canada in the 1970s, when Americans fled the draft, and in the US in the 1980s, when hundreds of churches extended sanctuary to Central Americans fleeing political turmoil. But even today, a couple dozen churches in both nations still run sanctuary networks, openly promoting the refuge they offer as a stopgap to counteract the effects of reactionary immigration policies.

According to Sean Rehaag, a law professor at Canada's York University specializing in refugee issues, these churches evade crackdowns because they flout, but do not break, laws. "Sanctuary does not prevent the state from enforcing [laws]," Rehaag said. "As long as churches provide sanctuary openly, do not try to resist enforcement, and do not encourage [illegal acts], it is not clear that they're doing anything illegal."

That's a passive form of sanctuary. But American and Canadian authorities still find themselves functionally stalemated by it. They don't want the PR-nightmare optics of storming a church. Instead they try to wait immigrants out—often failing and making limited accommodations to those in churches.

Yet Rehaag thinks that if dangerous criminals (not just cuddly immigrants) use sanctuary, the public sours on churches, or too many people seek protection, this might override trepidation about making a scene. Knowing this, churches tend to turn away most sanctuary applicants, accepting only sympathetic and politicized cases like Lennikov's. But given the vagaries of politics, even this subtle sanctuary could collapse at any moment. So if you're fleeing justice in Canada, don't count on the church.