A sanctuary, in its original meaning, is a sacred place, such as a shrine. By the use of such places as a safe haven, by extension the term has come to be used for any place of safety. This secondary use can be categorized into human sanctuary, a safe place for humans, such as a political sanctuary; and non-human sanctuary, such as an animal or plant sanctuary.
Sanctuary is a word derived from the Latin sanctuarium, which is like most words ending in -arium, a container for keeping something in - in this case holy things or perhaps holy people, sancta or sancti. The meaning was extended, as so often happens, to places of holiness, or indeed of safety. A religious sanctuary can be a sacred place (such as a church, temple, Synagogue or mosque), or a consecrated area of a church or temple around its tabernacle or altar.
Sanctuary as a sacred place
In Europe, Christian churches were sometimes built on land considered to be a particularly 'holy spot', perhaps where a miracle or martyrdom had allegedly taken place or where a holy person was buried. Examples are St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and St. Albans Cathedral in England, which commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Peter (the first Pope) and Saint Alban (the first Christian martyr in Britain), respectively. The place, and therefore the church built there, was considered to have been sanctified (made holy) by what happened there. In modern times, the Roman Catholic Church has continued this practice by placing in the altar of each church, when it is consecrated for use, a box (the sepulcrum) containing relics of a saint. The relics box is removed when the church is taken out of use as a church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the antimension on the altar serves a similar function. It is a cloth icon of Christ's body taken down from the cross, and typically has the relics of a saint sewn into it. In addition, it is signed by the parish's bishop, and represents his authorization and blessing for the Eucharist to be celebrated on that altar.
Sanctuary as an altar
The area around the altar is also considered holy because of the physical presence of God in the Eucharist, both during the Mass and in the tabernacle on the altar the rest of the time. So that people can tell when Jesus is there (in the tabernacle), the sanctuary lamp is lit, indicating that anyone approaching the altar should genuflect, to show respect for Him. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Eastern Catholic Churches of Syro-Malabar Church, Byzantine rite and Coptic Orthodox Churches, the sanctuary is separated from the nave (where the people pray) by an iconostasis, literally a wall of icons, with three doors in it. In other Oriental Orthodox traditions, a sanctuary curtain is used. In Anglican/Episcopal churches, the term "sanctuary" also describes only the area enclosed by the altar rail. In most Protestant churches, the term sanctuary denotes the entire worship area while the term chancel is used to refer to the area around the altar-table. In many traditions, such as the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church, altar rails sometimes mark the edge of the sanctuary or chancel.
The area around the altar came to be called the "sanctuary", and that terminology does not apply to Christian churches alone: King Solomon's temple, built in about 950 BCE, had a sanctuary ("Holy of Holies") where the Ark of the Covenant was, and the term applies to the corresponding part of any house of worship. In most modern synagogues, the main room for prayer is known as the sanctuary, to contrast it with smaller rooms dedicated to various other services and functions. (There is a raised bimah in the sanctuary, from which services are conducted, which is where the ark holding the Torah may reside; some synagogues, however, have a separate bimah and ark-platform.)
When referring to prosecution of crimes, sanctuary can mean one of the following:
- Church sanctuary
- A sacred place, such as a church, in which fugitives formerly were immune to arrest (recognized by English law from the fourth to the seventeenth century)
- Political sanctuary
- Immunity to arrest afforded by a sovereign authority. The United Nations has expanded the definition of "political" to include race, nationality, religion, political opinions and membership and/or participation in any particular social group or social activities. People seeking political sanctuary typically do so by asking a sovereign authority for asylum.
Right of asylum
Many ancient peoples recognized a religious "right of asylum", protecting criminals (or those accused of crime) from legal action and from exile to some extent. This principle was adopted by the early Christian church, and various rules developed for what the person had to do to qualify for protection and just how much protection it was.
In England, King Ethelbert made the first laws regulating sanctuary in about AD 600, though Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136) says that the legendary pre-Saxon king Dunvallo Molmutius (4th/5th century BC) enacted sanctuary laws in the Molmutine Laws as recorded by Gildas (c. 500–570). By Norman times, there had come to be two kinds of sanctuary: All churches had the lower-level kind, but only the churches the king licensed had the broader version. The medieval system of asylum was finally abolished entirely in England by James I in 1623.
During the Wars of the Roses, when the Lancastrians or Yorkists would suddenly get the upper hand by winning a battle, some adherents of the losing side might find themselves surrounded by adherents of the winning side and unable to return to their own side, so they would rush to sanctuary at the nearest church until it was safe to leave it. A prime example is Queen Elizabeth Woodville, consort of Edward IV of England.
In 1470, when the Lancastrians briefly restored Henry VI to the throne, Edward's queen was living in London with several young daughters. She moved with them into Westminster for sanctuary, living there in royal comfort until Edward was restored to the throne in 1471 and giving birth to their first son Edward during that time. When King Edward died in 1483, Elizabeth (who was highly unpopular with even the Yorkists and probably did need protection) took her five daughters and youngest son (Richard, Duke of York; Prince Edward had his own household by then) and again moved into sanctuary at Westminster. She had all the comforts of home; she brought so much furniture and so many chests that the workmen had to knock holes in some of the walls to get everything in fast enough to suit her.
Sanctuary movement in modern times
Sanctuary of refugees from Central American civil wars was a movement in the 1980s. Part of a broader anti-war movement positioned against U.S. foreign policy in Central America, by 1987 440 sites in the United States had been declared "sanctuary cities" open to migrants from these civil wars in the Central America region.
These sites included university campuses and cities. From the 1980s continuing into the 2000s, there also have been instances of churches providing "sanctuary" for short periods to migrants facing deportation in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, the United States, and Canada, among other nations. In 2007, Iranian refugee Shahla Valadi was granted asylum in Norway after spending seven years in church sanctuary after the initial denial of asylum. Norwegian authorities will not, as a rule, enter churches to deport illegal immigrants. From 1983 to 2003 Canada experienced 36 sanctuary incidents. The "New Sanctuary Movement" organization estimates that at least 600,000 people in the United States have at least one family member in danger of deportation.
When referring to a shelter from danger or hardship, sanctuary can mean one of the following:
- Shelter sanctuary
- A place offering protection and safety; a shelter, typically used by displaced persons, refugees, and homeless people.
- Humanitarian sanctuary
- A source of help, relief, or comfort in times of trouble typically used by victims of war and disaster.
- Institutional sanctuary
- An institution for the care of people, especially those with physical or mental impairments, who require organized supervision or assistance.
The term "sanctuary" has further come to be applied to any space set aside for private use in which others are not supposed to intrude, such as a "man cave".
An animal sanctuary is a facility where animals are brought to live and be protected for the rest of their lives. Unlike animal shelters, sanctuaries do not seek to place animals with individuals or groups, instead maintaining each animal until his or her natural death.
Plant sanctuaries are areas set aside to maintain functioning natural ecosystems, to act as refuges for species and to maintain ecological processes that cannot survive in most intensely managed landscapes and seascapes. Protected areas act as benchmarks against which we understand human interactions with the natural world. Today they are often the only hope we have of stopping many threatened or endemic species from becoming extinct.
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 2, 17
- Iranian given asylum in Norway: World: News: News24
- See Randy K. Lippert (2005). Sanctuary, Sovereignty, Sacrifice: Canadian Sanctuary Incidents, Power and Law. ISBN 0-7748-1249-4
- "Elvira Arellano Arrested Outside Downtown Church: Chicago Immigration Activist Taken Into Custody Sunday Afternoon" CBS2.com
- J. Charles Cox (1911). The Sanctuaries and Sanctuary Seekers of Medieval England On Archive.org
- John Bellamy (1973). Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages.
- Richard Kaeuper (1982). "Right of asylum". Dictionary of the Middle Ages. v.1 pp. 632–633. ISBN 0-684-16760-3