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How is it possible that in Canada in 2013 "Sanctuary," a medieval concept of Church protection, is still necessary? As we reflect on today, International Human Rights Day, we must also contemplate the fact that desperate, stateless people have come here with a hope that Canada would treat them fairly, would strive to understand the brutal circumstances which forced them to leave their homes and dream of being welcomed in a country with a once proud reputation for kindness and sensitivity. Instead they have had to go into hiding under the protection of a Church with the hope that compassion will in the end win out.

Sanctuary is an ancient practice in the Jewish and Christian traditions and it has taken many and different forms throughout history. In ancient Israel there were cities of refuge, in the medieval period people sought sanctuary in a church to escape the wrath of a feudal lord, during the Nazi period monks and nuns hid Jews within their monasteries, in the United States churches and synagogues offered sanctuary to refugees from Central America in the 80s and now in Europe today there is a "New Sanctuary Movement" to protect desperate refugees who have made the harrowing voyage across the Mediterranean. And for the last thirty years Sanctuary has been reclaimed as an affirmation of human rights in Canada.

Across this country, here and there, in Vancouver, Regina, Toronto, Montreal and other places, people are living in a church. Mostly these people come from countries that while designated "safe" by new legislation enacted by the Harper government is far from it. Places like Hungary, Croatia, Chile and Mexico are a few of the places where frightened refugees arrive with the hope that they will be safe from harm. Sadly though they find themselves in a place meant for worship. The desire to live has driven them into a church in search of safety.

These places of sanctuary are remarkable outposts of decency in Canada today. They are united in a network of faith called the Canadian Sanctuary network. They understand what they are doing not only as an act of faith but also as a responsibility as citizens. The sanctuary network, drawing on some of the wisdom of the Sanctuary movement in the United States, has articulated its actions as a "civil initiative". Offering Sanctuary is not an act of civil disobedience but rather an effort to uphold the law when a government has ceased to do so.

Our country has a Constitution which claims to uphold the right to "the security of the person" and has signed international treaties upholding human rights, the rights of children, a Convention Against Torture that prohibits sending a person back to torture. When our government does not uphold these laws, then citizens and people of faith can and must take a "civil initiative" to do so.

Sanctuary is a space within a church or synagogue or place of worship that marks out a space of holiness. In desperate times, such as ours, it becomes a place of memory and hope – a space to remember that human life is sacred and worthy of protection. It is a space beyond the reach of the state where conscience and freedom of religion can be exercised.

It is their defence against the darkness that has descended. Thankfully, there remain pinpricks of light. Groups such as the Jewish Refugee Action Network and the Canadian Council of Refugees are speaking out. But more must be done. With the spectre of our government using anti-refugee legislation to jail children and deny basic health care to those seeking refuge we can no longer remain silent.

The great Jewish philosophers have told us that at times of moral crisis a person should not say "I will go to my house where I will eat and drink and be at peace with myself". We must all act on behalf of those less fortunate.

Bernie M. Farber is a founding member of the Jewish Refugee Action Network, a writer and human rights advocate. Today he is Senior VP with Gemini Power Corp where he works in partnership with First Nations to build on reserve sustainable industries.