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Australian Churches Take Bold Step To Protect Refugees From Sexual Assault

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Eight Australian Christian leaders and a rabbi stage a sit-in in 2014 to protest the Australian government's intention to send children to the Nauru detention center. At least two of the participants pictured belong to a church now offering sanctuary to refugees.

A group of Australian churches are taking a bold step to protect refugees from sexual assault, defying their federal government by harboring asylum seekers who are at risk of being deported to a island detention center allegedly rife with abuse and rape.

According to the Guardian, a group of 10 Anglican and Uniting churches in Australia announced this week they would take in some refugees currently at risk of being shipped back to the tiny island nation of Nauru, where the government runs an immigration detention center. Australia uses small islands across the South Pacific to house more than 1,400 refugees from various countries until their asylum claims are processed, but the Nauru camp has become infamous for its horrific conditions: reports abound of widespread sexual assault enacted against women and children at the camp, which some have likened to a prison, and medical experts claim that at least one five-year-old rape victim has been traumatized into contemplating suicide.

A Melbourne-based advocacy organization sued the government in May 2015 to try and shut down the camps, questioning Australia’s legal right to detain refugees on foreign soil. But when the High Court ruled in favor of keeping the camps on Wednesday, faith-rooted supporters of the asylum seekers took the drastic step of offering their churches as safe haven to the 267 refugees (including 37 babies) transported to the mainland for medial treatment — a move that effectively dares the government to raid their sanctuaries in order to ship them back to Nauru.

“We offer this refuge because there is irrefutable evidence from health and legal experts that the circumstances asylum seekers, especially children, would face if sent back to Nauru are tantamount to state-sanctioned abuse,” the Very Reverend Dr Peter Catt, the Anglican Dean of Brisbane, told ABC Radio National on Thursday.

The step is gutsy — but it carries potential risks for the religious groups involved, as Australian law prohibits “concealing and harboring non-citizens.” But for the activists, potential legal ramifications aren’t enough to trump moral duty.

"This fundamentally goes against our faith so our church community is compelled to act, despite the possibility of individual penalty against us," Catt said in a statement.

The tactic appears to be effective, at least in the short term. Immigration minister Peter Dutton told the Guardian he did not expect the government to begin “dragging people out of churches,” noting that cases would be individually considered on medical advice.

Nuaru

Nuaru

CREDIT: Google Maps/Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

The effort appears to be modeled after the successful U.S.-based New Sanctuary Movement, a growing activist campaign where American churches take in undocumented immigrants and refugees in defiance of federal government deportation orders. The bold brand of church-based activism began in 2014 but has seen a resurgence this year in response to a series of deportation raids launched in January by the Obama administration, which has already begun shipping back people fleeing violence and economic ruin in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The New Sanctuary Movement is itself a callback to the original Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when houses of worship along the U.S.-Mexico border took in refugees attempting to escape a series of deadly conflicts in Central America.

American churches who offer sanctuary do have a modicum of protection. Although there is no law preventing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from removing an immigrant from a sanctuary, the agency has an internal policy of never raiding schools, hospitals, and churches.

Australian churches, however, appear to be relying solely on their moral authority to keep immigration agents at bay. They’re in good company: late last year, Pope Francis demanded that every Catholic parish across Europe take in a Syrian refugee family, later adding that any church that turned them away should have its tax-exempt status revoked. Meanwhile, U.S. faith groups also refused to stop settling refugees in states where governors had called for a ban on those attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian conflict.

In the meantime, the Australian communities offering safe harbor refugees are just hoping more churches will join their cause.

“Historically churches have afforded sanctuary to those seeking refuge from brutal and oppressive forces,” Catt told the Sydney Morning Herald. “What we expect to happen in the course of the day and the next few days is that many churches from many denominations will sign up.”