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Sanctuary Issue, Rooted in Scripture, Stirs Enthusiasm, Debate

December 07, 1985|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

An Old Testament chapter-and-verse citation forms a toll-free hot line for getting updated information by telephone about the 7-week-old trial in Tucson of 11 sanctuary movement members for harboring Central American refugees.

The number, based on Leviticus 19:33, is 1-800-LEV-1933.

The passage reads: "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong." Actually, Leviticus 19:34 says it more strongly: "The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. . . ."

The passages constitute the crux of the theological justifications made for a largely religious movement at odds with federal immigration authorities, yet showing no signs of collapse.

There is no distinction made in the Hebrew Bible between the alien or sojourner and the native-born, and there is "no suggestion of concern about how and why the (stranger) is among us," said Old Testament scholar Davie Napier.

"The Bible is an inspired and inspiring record of displaced and dispossessed people who have found a communal identity and a home with God," said John H. Elliott, a Lutheran professor who teaches at the University of San Francisco. Napier's and Elliott's observations were made in recently published book, "Sanctuary" (Harper).

Broad Sympathy

Both men typify the broad sympathy in ecumenical and interfaith circles with religiously motivated response to hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees who have fled the violence in their countries.

Critics of the movement accuse religious organizations that have joined the sanctuary movement of using the refugee crisis as a way to get churchgoers to oppose Reagan Administration policies in Central America.

While sanctuary workers deny that the refugees are being "used" for political ends, most movement leaders also say that the refugee flow and political repression in Central America cannot be treated separately.

"Why are the refugees coming?" asks Sister Jo'Ann De Quattro, who chairs the sanctuary committee of the Southern California Ecumenical Council's Interfaith Task Force on Central America. "I can't stop just at the plight of the refugees."

"We need to announce the truth and denounce what is wrong," said De Quattro, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

The number of congregations that have said publicly that they will harbor refugees in danger of deportation is small, only about 300 nationwide.

An Immigration and Naturalization Service official this week estimated that there are "395,000 churches throughout the country that did not subscribe to the sanctuary movement."

John Belluardo, INS director of congressional and public affairs, said: "We would encourage churches to work within the legal process for individuals who feel they have a well-founded fear of persecution to apply for asylum in this country." Sanctuary movement leaders contend that most refugees do not have the financial resources or confidence in the process to apply for asylum and to establish that they face life-threatening situations if they return.

Although there are relatively few religious sanctuaries--only about 35 in Southern California, including three Reform Jewish congregations--support for the movement is fairly strong at the denominational level. Reform Judaism's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, meeting in Los Angeles last month, voted to urge its 791 synagogues to support the movement despite "serious legal implications."

Support has also been expressed by national bodies of the Presbyterian, United Methodist, American Baptist, Unitarian, Quaker and Mennonite churches.

"The practice of providing sanctuary is as deeply rooted in tradition in the church as is public evangelism," said the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in October. The board's statement also denounced the federal prosecution of church members in Tucson as a Department of Justice attempt "to deny this unique expression of church conscience."

Few churches have openly criticized the sanctuary movement. Objections that have surfaced have come mainly from a few politically and theologically conservative organizations that regularly critique mainline Protestant denominations. They have dismissed the movement's theological rationales, contending that the underlying motives have more to do with liberal politics than religion.

For example, the conservative Presbyterian Layman, commenting on the sanctuary issue in its November-December edition, charged that for two decades the Presbyterian Church leadership "has played fast and loose with the law, often veiling the essential question with quasi-theological fluff." The paper said the official denominational "press hype" has come close to investing the Rev. John Fife of Tucson, one of the defendants in the alien-smuggling trial, with sainthood. The essential question is still a matter of law, the paper said.

In many ways, the sanctuary debate parallels the arguments in churches in the 1960s over civil disobedience--whether breaking the law is religiously justifiable in the light of what Christians may view as morally unjust discrimination.

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