Cops storm church, nab asylum-seeker in Quebec City

Posted by admin on Mar 6th, 2004

Gazette, 6 March 2004
Allison Hanes

Quebec City police violated a centuries-old tradition of safe harbour yesterday when they barged into a church and dragged out Mohamed Cherfi, an Algerian activist who had taken refuge there last month to avoid deportation to his war-torn homeland. There is no law protecting people seeking sanctuary in a church, but this is believed to be the first time in Canadian history authorities have pounced on a person seeking asylum on sacred ground.

Within the hour, Cherfi had been handed over to Canadian Border Security Agency authorities. And by the end of day, he had been turned over to U.S. authorities

Although there was a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest issued by immigration authorities for failing to show up for deportation last month, Cherfi, 35, was picked up yesterday for breaking bail conditions.

They were imposed last year after he was arrested during a sit-in at the Quebec immigration minister’s office.

Cherfi’s supporters, as well as groups that work with immigrants and refugees, expressed outrage, saying they fear a nasty precedent has been set.

“It’s shocking. It’s shameful. It’s scandalous,” said a shell-shocked Rev. Gerald Dore, the pastor at the parish that had offered Cherfi safe haven. “They’ve violated the tradition of sanctuary for what? For a summary offence.”

Just before 12:30 p.m., there was a knock at the door of Eglise Unie St. Pierre in the old city, where Cherfi, 35, had been holed up since Feb. 18. David Moffette, a member of the support committee that had sprung up in solidarity with Cherfi, opened the door and found 10 burly police officers staring at

They stormed in and immediately descended on Cherfi, pushing him into his small, book-filled bedroom in the basement where he’d been sleeping on an inflatable mattress.

They emerged moments later with Cherfi in handcuffs and marched him out the door.

“Mr. Cherfi was almost mute,” Moffette recounted less than an hour after his friend had been spirited away. “I never thought they’d go this far. This is shameful.”

Cherfi is a well-known activist who protested and was arrested three times fighting for the right of his compatriots to stay in Canada after a moratorium on deportation to Algeria was lifted in 2002.

Feb. 18, the day he sought sanctuary in the church, Cherfi said he suspected his activism had undermined his refugee claim.

But he said he also feared his outspokenness here would make him a target of persecution, torture or even execution should he be forced to return home.

Quebec City police were saying little yesterday.

“We knew from media reports that Mr. Cherfi was located in a church on our territory. We had a warrant for his arrest and we executed the warrant this afternoon,” police spokesperson Jean-Francois Vezina said.

When asked how carefully police had considered the consequences of violating the tradition of sanctuary, Vezina said simply: “I don’t have any information on that.”

Robert Gervais, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, confirmed Cherfi was in the hands of department authorities as of 1 p.m. yesterday.

He said the Canadian Border Security Agency did not initiate the arrest.

“They arrested him for one reason and he was handed over to us for another reason,” Gervais said.

As for whether tolerance has run out for four other families in Canada currently seeking sanctuary in churches, Gervais said each case is judged on its own merits.

“We’ve never said we wouldn’t intervene in a church. We have only said that, depending on the case, we would wait until the person decided to respect Canadian law and come out,” he said.

Immigration officials got the municipal police to do their dirty work for them, said Darryl Gray, co-ordinator of the Sanctuary Committee and the minister at Union United, a Little Burgundy church that is harbouring a refugee family.

“It’s backhanded,” Gray said. “What they’ve done is tell people they are no longer safe in churches. This is going to drive people underground, which is the last thing we wanted.”

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