Kristín Þórunn Tómasdóttir and Toshiki Toma are two Lutheran ministers who made headlines earlier this month when they opened Laugarneskirkja to asylum seekers wanting sanctuary from deportation. Video and photos of police entering the church and dragging an Iraqi teenager out have added a new dimension to Iceland’s ongoing argument about asylum seekers, and made these two ministers the focus of both praise and criticism. Here they explain how their faith led them to taking direct action.
Can you give our readers some context in terms of what church asylum is?
Kristín: The concept of church asylum is an old one. It was actually in laws that were established in the Middle Ages, and was based on the idea that people could seek shelter and protection from authorities—there was little to no central authority in those days, and no police, so a lot of people were caught in conflicts between warring chieftains. The church would be a safe haven. This applied not only to the building, but also to the church grounds. Back then, if you managed to get yourself into a church for sanctuary, the pastor was responsible for keeping you alive; providing water, clothes and food. Now, there’s no such thing as church sanctuary as a part of Icelandic law. But the idea is there, as well as the idea that some places we hold more sacred than others. So this idea of church asylum was one of the inspirations to do this.
Actually, in the wave of this migrant crisis, the idea of church asylum has been re-invoked. We have examples around us, in countries such as Norway and Sweden, where this sanctuary has been respected, and examples where it has not.
Toshiki: It is very interesting to consider these examples from Sweden and Norway. There have been instances where the police go into the church and make arrests. In other places, the sanctuary of the church is very well respected.
Kristín: There’s this interesting tension within the Christian faith, in that one tends to be very conservative, and the church supports everything the authorities do. But you also have this tendency within Christianity that holds the church should be prophetic, fight injustice and stand with those who are marginalised. In this case, I thought that clergy all over would see this action as a very clear example of how we can support and stick up for the marginalised. Obviously I was wrong; people are debating this, even within the church. It’s good to remember certain key passages from the Bible, such as the story of the Good Samaritan. He didn’t ask about age, or religion, or social status—he just helped. This is a very integral part of Christianity.
We’ve been seeing a lot more deportations lately. What was the impetus that made you two decide, “OK, enough, we have to do something?”
Toshiki: Well, one thing I must make clear here is that the idea of using church sanctuary came from the asylum seekers themselves. They asked if the church could protect them, having learned from examples they’ve seen elsewhere in Europe; in particular, where the Catholic church is involved. So they got the idea that maybe we could provide the same kind of protection for them. We thought about it and decided, why not? Honestly, neither Kristín nor I think church sanctuary should function in the same way it did in the Middle Ages. We had to adjust the concept to fit a modern setting. I didn’t completely expect that the police would stop at the church doors and go back.
Kristín: I was not surprised that things went down like they did. And to continue on Toshiki’s point of re-interpreting church sanctuary in a modern context, I think it’s very interesting for us as a society to discuss what we hold holy. My idea is that we hold holy the concept of human rights. I suspect that one of the reasons why people are reacting so strongly to this event was that something was broken. The authorities crossed some line—not in violating the sanctity of the church, but that here is some notion of human life, and it should be respected. This is a discussion we need to have: what is the status of human rights in our society, and how far are we willing to go to protect it?
That’s an important question, and one I’m sure you asked yourselves. How did you decide how far you were willing to go?
Toshiki: We discussed it very carefully, and decided we would not do anything against the law. And we didn’t. It was very peaceful. We never used violence. We didn’t resist the police when they came in. We let the police know where these boys were, that we were having a prayer meeting for them, and to not go to their homes [to arrest them] but to come here.
So you had to let the police know where these boys were, because otherwise you could get charged with hiding a fugitive?
Toshiki: Yes, exactly. I can show you the message if you like! So the church was open, and we never stopped the police or told them not to come in. We just explained why we were doing this, and asked them to show respect. But the police came in anyway to take the boys outside. Of course, the boys were not willing to cooperate. They didn’t fight back, but they didn’t leave willingly, either.
Once outside the church, there happened what I would call unnecessary violence, which was done by the police. They have to take responsibility for that.
Yes, a video taken of the action shows the church staff put up no resistance (Video embedded at the end of this article – Ed.). But how did it feel to see the police behaving this way, both in your church and outside it?
Kristín: Heartbreaking. Disappointing, too, on some level. What was disappointing was how quickly the police started to use force. They didn’t try to talk, or convince, or to try and do this diplomatically. Since then, we have had a wave of anger on behalf of the police.
There is a certain irony in seeing people who have long defended and cited the national church in their arguments against immigration now leaving the church for helping foreigners.
Kristín: It is bizarre. I think they’re not used to having a national church that thinks differently.
Toshiki: There are some people who are trying to make the story that we did something against the law. Which is not true. But I think they’re intentionally pushing this narrative.
Which is even more bizarre, because we have the entire arrest on video, it’s public, and anyone who wants can see that no one broke any laws here.
Toshiki: I think maybe we pushed some taboo button. I think for some people, the national church was like a tamed dog; always following them, feeding us by hand, and maybe we bit that hand.
Where do you see this going? Is the church going to provide more protection for asylum seekers in the future? Do you think things need to be escalated a little bit?
Kristín: I think this was an escalation. Obviously, we did not manage to stop the deportation with these means, so I’m not seeing us doing this exact same thing again. But I hope that this has stirred the waters enough to make people realise that something can be done, and something should be done.
Toshiki: If we really want to work towards stopping deportations, we need to do that before a deportation is going to happen. You can put pressure on the Ministry of the Interior to stop a deportation, but not the police. The police have no authority to do that. I think we should put more focus on prevention. At the same time, I think maybe it’s good for us to continue with this, sometimes, to show that we are together with the people.
The police are not actually the ones we’re fighting against. It’s the whole process—from Immigration to the Appeals Board to the Ministry. The decision-makers. The police are just executing their orders. We’re not breaking the law.
Would you break the law to prevent someone from being sent to certain death in another country?
Kristín: I think so, yes, because my faith inspires me to do so. To love life, and to love your neighbour above all.
Toshiki: I think so, too. Within that context, yes.
Kristín: One of the essential components of Lutheran Christianity is that we don’t have to agree on all things. We can and we do disagree. We can vary in our approaches.
(Video source: Stundin)