Sanctuary is a marvelous word!

The original meaning of sanctuary is a place holding something holy. By entering the abode of the holy a person becomes untouchable. In Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame the cathedral is the sanctuary which, for a while, protects the gypsy girl La Esmerelda from the hangman. In the 1939 film version with Charles Laughton the story becomes both a love story and a parable about the persecution and deliverance of a people, the gypsies. A testament also to the power of pity! Memorable is the scene where a group of gypsies is denied entry into Paris, because they are ‘foreigners’. ‘Foreigners’ their leader says: ‘you came yesterday, we come today’. A courageous message on the eve of World War II and not even 20 years after the refugee chaos following the end of World War I! But a statement of enduring validity, as anybody living in Vienna will testify, given the prevalence of so many archetypical Austrian families having ‘foreign’ names. Best sandwiches in Vienna come from Trzesniewski, and hardly a Palais has a ‘proper’ German name! Or what about France: a president, Francois Hollande, the predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and a first generation Spanish immigrant, Manuel Valls, as prime minister until last week? In England Farage sounds distinctly foreign, and a large part of the nobility has names of French or German origin. Richard the Lionheart was, in truth, Richard Coeur de Lion! In the United States everybody but the Native Americans came today or yesterday, and Trump is, of course, a German name.

In modern day discourse ‘sanctuary’’ has been replaced by the more prosaic ‘refuge’, originally meaning the act of ‘fleeing backwards’. By this, we have shifted the emphasis from what the despondent person seeks: the protection of the ‘holy’, to who she is: somebody fleeing backwards. This shift in emphasis brings convenience because the spotlight moves from the ‘holy’ thing we are unwilling to share but which protects us – peace and the possibility of the pursuit of happiness – to the unfortunate situation of the refugee being persecuted by her own sort – nothing to do with us! How cruel is that?

At a time of unprecedented prosperity it is revolting that we who came yesterday seek to bolt shut the gate of our Notre-Dame in order to deny relief to the ‘heathen’ Esmereldas of today; that we hide behind ‘nothing to do with us’ to distract from the fact that we will not entertain inconvenience to pay for the salvation of others!


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