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Church sanctuary

The concept of church sanctuary is literally as old as the European Middle Ages when for over 1,300 years, the right of any person accused of crime to seek protection within the walls of a consecrated church was universally recognized in western Europe. From the 4th century to 17th century, English law recognized this practice. In fact, European literature is full of allusions of church sanctuary. The most famous is the novel  Hunchback of Notre Dame written by Alexandre Dumas, wherein the heroine Esmeralda sought sanctuary in the Cathedral of Notre Dame when she was being pursued by the guards of the villain Minister Frollo.

Sanctuary is a word derived from the Latin sanctuarium meaning a container for keeping something. In this case, it referred to holy things or – in Latin – sancta. The actual meaning originally referred to “places of holiness or safety.” A religious sanctuary meant a sacred place, such as a church or temple. 

Today, this idea of immunity from arrest is still recognized,  to a certain extent, by the United Nations and most countries of the world like the United States. People can leave their homeland and move to another country to seek political sanctuary or “asylum.” The UN has defined “political” to include persecution because of race, nationality, religion, political opinion; and, participation  in any particular social group or activities.

In the United States, there is a growing movement that have declared themselves as ‘sanctuary cities” where even political leaders of specific cities and states have refused to participate in the deportation of illegal migrants. In the USA, Canada and Europe, many churches have been known to provide sanctuary to migrants facing deportation. During the Second World War, there were also many stories of churches providing sanctuary to Jews being persecuted by the Nazis.

Recently, the issue of church sanctuary has come to the Philippines when Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan and outgoing president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a statement saying: “Law enforcers have come forward confidentially to us, their spiritual leaders to seek sanctuary, succor, and protection. They have expressed their desire to come out in the open about their participation in extrajudicial killings and summary executions. Their consciences are troubling them.“

The Archbishop’s statement seems to refer only to potential witnesses and does not include those accused of extrajudicial killings. The offer of church sanctuary is very clear. He said: 

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“ We will look prudently into the sincerity of their motives and veracity of their stories. Within the bounds of church and civil laws, we express our willingness to grant them accommodation, shelter, and protection (including their families if necessary). The hospitality, comfort and acceptance that they seek from the church will be attended to.”

Archbishop Villegas also said that “...if their preference is to stay with us in the Church, they will not be turned over to the State under its own witness protection program.” However, Archbishop Villegas was very careful in announcing that there was a limit to the assistance of the Church.: “But our priests are admonished to refrain from discussing with “asylum seekers” the contents of their testimonies and depositions. It is furthermore recommended that volunteer lawyers, preferably those who belong to alternative law groups assist the witness and also readily affirm that no member of the clergy instructed directed and couched the testimonies they give.” The purpose, I think, is to ensure that the Church will not be accused of conducting its own private campaign to prosecute cases of alleged extrajudicial killings.

There have been cases in the recent past of religious organizations giving protection to whistleblowers. I remember the case of Jun Lozada who was given sanctuary first by the  Brothers in La Salle-Greenhills; and, then by the Benedictine nuns in St. Scholastica’s College. 

There will be two different reactions that I will be waiting to witness in the near future. The first is to see how many dioceses and religious organizations will follow the example of Archbishop Villegas. The second is the reaction of the government if there is someone who will seek sanctuary in one of the churches and then agree to testify in a court of law. 

Archbishop Villegas has earned the image of an “activist” even before becoming president of the CBCP. Some have even called him a controversial personality especially when he takes on issues that are considered political. He was strongly opposed to the Marcos burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Recently, he has been outspoken about alleged human rights violations and extrajudicial killings. But those who know his background are not surprised by his “activism.”

He is a member of the secular Franciscan Order and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. He served for 18 years as the private secretary of the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, the charismatic Catholic leader whose public stand against the Marcos martial law regime was invaluable in mobilizing the democratic forces that eventually led to the People Power Revolution. Prior to his appointment as a bishop, Villegas served as the first rector of the EDSA Shrine. Perhaps, Villegas’s “activism” is the fruit of his years of tutelage and influence by Cardinal Sin.

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