Parishes aid refugee in sanctuary

Amir Kazemian, who claims he will be imprisoned or killed if he returns to his native Iran, was granted sanctuary beginning in July at St. Michael's, Vancouver. He is living in the church’s chapel

Several Diocese of New Westminster parishes and individuals are lending support to a 39-year old refugee from Iran who was granted sanctuary by St. Michael's parish in July and has been staying in the church's chapel since. Food, clothing, and emotional support have been freely given to Amir Kazemian, who entered the church July 15 after he was ordered deported by Canadian Immigration.

"He didn't just come in the door," said the Rev. Emilie Smith, a priest with the Jubilee Cluster of four parishes, of which St. Michael's at 409 East Broadway is one. "This wasn't a decision made lightly."

Assisting St. Michael's in caring for Kazemian have been Anglicans in other parishes in the Jubilee Cluster - St. Mark's, St. George's, and St. Chad's, plus St. Thomas, Vancouver, St. Catherine's North Vancouver, St. David's, Tsawwassen, and Christ Church Cathedral. Many other people, who do not belong to the church, have helped too, said Smith.

"I believe in God and Jesus Christ because everything comes to me just at the right time," said Kazemian, who converted to Christianity from Islam shortly after coming to Canada from Iran in 1997 on a visitor's visa.

He sought refugee status, telling a Refugee Board that he had been arrested, imprisoned for over a year, and tortured for assisting his father, whom he said was the leader of a political party that opposed the establishment of an Islamic state.

The hearing officer rejected Kazemian's claim. According to court documents, the officer ruled that he was not credible.

However when his mother, Masoumeh Kazemian, came to Canada in 2000, and made a similar claim for refugee status, she was accepted. Amir Kazemian said that he testified at his mother's hearing, and in this instance his testimony was accepted.

"We have a very clear sense that a mistake has been made," said Smith.

She said the basic problem seems to be that the federal legislation now does not allow a refugee hearing to be reopened once a hearing officer has made a decision. The only appeal allowed is on technicalities, not on the merits of the case.

Amir Kazemian beside a post in the nave of St. Michael’s Church that list’s the United Nation’s enumeration of human rights

Meanwhile, Kazemian is being well cared for by St. Michael's. A parishioner does his laundry. A Daycare Centre located in the church provides food. "Every day they bring me a hot lunch," said Kazemian.

Spanish-speaking parishioners at St. Michael's, many refugees themselves, visit often to provide more support. Even a homeless person who lives in the neighbourhood brings cigarettes and candy.

Kazemian in turn participates in parish life, helping out at the regular Monday morning drop-in breakfast by cooking or washing dishes, attending services, painting the Daycare's stairs, and acting as the night watchman in an area of town that has problems with vandalism and petty theft.

"We haven't been broken into since he came," said Smith.

The provision of sanctuary hasn't been without some controversy. An upset member of the congregation tipped off police that Kazemian was in the church. A police sergeant visited and interviewed Kazemian, but made no move to arrest him.

While churches have provided sanctuary to fugitives for centuries, there is no provision in law that allows it. In Quebec City last March, police removed a 35-year old Algerian from a church basement. He was deported to the US sortly afterwards.

Immigration Minister Judy Sgro in July asked churches to stop providing sanctuary and said that the practice of providing a "back door" to enter Canada could lead to "huge problems."

In reply, Anglican Primate Andrew Hutchison stated at a press conference in Toronto in August, "The real problem we want to address is not sanctuary, but the flawed refugee determination system that fails to protect some refugees."

The church leaders may meet with Sgro this month.

Detail from the poster in the nave of St. Michael's Church

John Conway, chair of the Diocesan Refugee Unit, reported on Kazemian's status to Diocesan Council last month. "The unit is unanimous in supporting his protest," Conway said.

"We will probably have to wait until the minister changes her mind and lets him in on compassionate grounds, or something like that. She can do that," Conway said.

While at St. Michael's people are hoping for a quick resolution, they realize Kazemian may be resident for a long time. A woman in an Anglican Church in Halifax had to stay for 421 days before the Immigration Department granted a temporary reprieve.

"He does give us an opportunity to practice what we preach," said Smith. "And he keeps coming up in sermons."

"We are hoping for a favourable resolution," she said. Turning to Kazemian she added: "But it will be kind of sad when you aren't here any more."