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The Cherfi arrest: sanctuary violated

By Donna Sinclair

The arrest last month of an Algerian refugee claimant who had been given asylum in a Quebec City United Church touched off a wave of demonstrations, led to an angry denunciation from church officials and thrust a centuries-old but little-known church tradition into the national spotlight.

As 35-year-old Mohamed Cherfi sat in a U.S. detention centre awaiting deportation to his native Algeria, demonstrators mobilized in at least eight Canadian cities. They called for Cherfi's return to Canada and a resumption of a moratorium on deportations from Canada to Algeria. The North African country has been wracked by political violence for many years.

The United Church assailed "the violent intrusion of the Quebec police into one of our sanctuaries" and requested an immediate meeting with two cabinet ministers whose departments were involved in the decision to seize Cherfi from l'Eglise Unie Saint-Pierre and hand him over to U.S. authorities.

A letter sent jointly to Anne McLellan, the public safety minister, and immigration minister Judy Sgro said the church wants to discuss "what steps the federal government will take to fulfill its international commitment to protect refugees and those who seek asylum."

The letter also insisted that congregations who grant sanctuary to refugees who have run out of options do so "not to hide anyone, but to seek justice under Canadian law and our international obligations."

Cherfi was to have been deported to his native Algeria in early February but as a last resort asked l'Eglise Unie Saint-Pierre for sanctuary. With the support of its sister congregation, Chalmers-Wesley United, the church agreed to take him in.

"There was no warning," said Rev. Gerald Dore, who was interviewing a couple planning to be married when he heard his name shouted. Seven Quebec City police officers were already inside the building, with more outside. The street was blocked with an unmarked car. "You are breaking sanctuary," Dore told them. "That has never been done in the history of this country."

A social activist who had been charged with obstruction of justice and released on bail following a sit-in at government offices, Cherfi had failed to advise Montreal police that he had moved to Quebec City. Found hidden in a closet, he was handcuffed and taken to the Quebec City police station. When several members of l'Eglise Unie Saint-Pierre followed later, along with some of the solidarity committee that supports Cherfi, they discovered that Cherfi -- who said he faces reprisals if he is deported to Algeria -- had been taken by Canadian Border Service agency officers to the U.S. border, where he was handed over to American authorities.

Refugee advocates within and outside the church said the action violated a convention whose roots date back to ancient Greece. While not enshrined in law, the convention holds that holy places can be sanctuaries from secular authorities who exercise their power too zealously. The practice has become more common in recent decades with an influx of refugees fleeing wars and persecution.

Several churches in Montreal, including Union United and St. Andrew's-Norwood United, currently house refugees in asylum. The practice is not common in Quebec City. Earlier in Cherfi's stay, Dore told a press conference that the Saint-Pierre congregation decided to shelter him after studying passages on sanctuary in the Old Testament and considering a 1992 United Church document that affirms the right of congregations to offer asylum.

When a five-year moratorium on deportations to Algeria ended in 2003, about 1,000 Algerians in Quebec faced being sent back to the strife-ridden North African country. Following demonstrations and lobbying efforts by supporters, about 900 have been allowed to remain in Canada. Cherfi had been arrested three times during demonstrations and was among those told to leave. Human rights groups in Quebec insist the moratorium should never have ended.

According to Dore, the Saint-Pierre congregation views Cherfi's social activism as a commendable quality. Cherfi is "an exceptional man, very kind, calm, deeply spiritual," he said. "Mohamed committed himself not only for his own benefit but for the defence of the whole group of Algerians, and this is the kind of resolute citizen that Canada should look for and be proud of."

Alex Swann, a spokesperson for Anne McLellan, said the Quebec City incident "indicates no change of policy." Although officials are "normally sensitive" to situations concerning a church, refugee claimants are dealt with "on a case-by-case basis." Refugee status is determined, he said, by "an arm's-length tribunal which evaluates cases on the basis of Canadian legislation."

However, Heather Macdonald, the United Church's staffperson for refugees, says the church is very concerned about the way the moral authority of sanctuary was violated. "This was wrong, and we object."

With files from David Fines and David Wilson.

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