Right of sanctuary no threat to security

Mikhail Lennikov is a Russian who speaks Japanese.

Mikhail Lennikov is a Russian who speaks Japanese.

He was recruited by the KGB in 1982 to do translation for the powerful Russian secret police.

He quit in 1988, three years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Twelve years ago, he came to Canada with his wife and son on a student visa and has been living in Burnaby British Columbia ever since.

His son recently graduated from a Burnaby high school.

Section 34 (1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act makes former enemy spies “inadmissible” to Canada. The next line however empowers the minister of public safety to cancel that “inadmissibility” if the person is no threat to Canada.

Lennikov is no threat to Canada.

“Public opinion is very clearly in favour of the Lennikovs,” said Peter Julian, the NDP MP for Burnaby-New Westminster.

“I know in my community, the local paper did a poll over the weekend and 98 per cent were supporting the Lennikovs.”

Nevertheless, Lennikov has been ordered deported and a Federal Court has rejected pleas from his lawyers to suspend the deportation.

Fearful that Canada Border Services Agency officials might detain him in advance of his June 3 deportation date, Lennikov accepted an offer of sanctuary at First Lutheran Church in East Vancouver where he and his family have been members of the congregation.

All he wants is for the threat of deportation to be removed.

“I cannot ask for permanent residency because there are issues that need to be addressed.” But he needs time to pursue whatever other legal options he may have and is prepared to be in sanctuary, unable to leave the church building, for years if necessary.

The pastor of the church, Richard Hergesheimer, said that the church council has been planning this for months and have built a room for Lennikov to live in and are ready for the long haul. Lennikov feels that the voluntary prison is still a better option than being forcibly removed to Russia, likely never able to leave that country again and his wife, Irina, and son, Dmitri, unable to visit him for fear of not being able to return to Canada.

There is a long tradition of sanctuary in Canada. There is also a long tradition of government fearing that churches will create a back door through which the unwanted can sneak into Canada. That is not going to happen. A little common sense is in order.

Churches are not hiding places. Authorities know where those claiming shelter are staying and can detain them if they step off church grounds. Taking sanctuary is akin to house arrest so where is the danger to national security?

The ancient practice of granting asylum-seekers refuge was recognized by English law from the 4th to the 17th century.

Although authorities today continue to respect the ancient tradition, right of sanctuary is not a legal right in Canada.

Only tradition prohibits officials from entering a church to arrest people.

So why would any church consider risking civil disobedience?

Because they have a moral responsibility, in certain cases involving those facing deportation, to provoke sober second thought from immigration officials.

No church is going to allow their property to shield those who are trying to avoid their penalty for heinous crimes. The church, however, may have reason to believe that errors have occurred. Systems can be flawed.

When Christians believe that justice is at risk because of a flawed system, a fair resolution is all that is asked.

Since 1989, the United Church of Canada has offered safe haven to 13 individuals, of which 12 cases were resolved without controversy.

Congregations attempting to uphold the traditions of justice and compassion, hallmarks of Canadian governance, through the venerable custom of sanctuary, pose no threat to national security.

To suggest otherwise is to dismantle a moral counterweight to the injustices that even the best bureaucracy can occasionally perpetrate.

Bob Ripley is a United Church minister in London, Ont.

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