BCC pres. says church leaders should act as liaisons on the ground
NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Bahamas Christian Council President Bishop Delton Fernander has called on the government to implement a liaison between the Department of Immigration and churches in storm-ravaged Abaco and Grand Bahama.
Fernander condemned reports of immigration officers executing operations at churches as a “desecration of the sanctity” of those buildings.
The Category 5 storm battered Abaco and Grand Bahama on September 1-3.
In an interview with Eyewitness News Online, Fernander underscored the government called on churches in affected areas to open its doors ahead of, during, and after the storm for those seeking refuge, regardless of their status.
He said in upholding the law there should be a level of human decency.
“Churches are places of sanctuary and before, after and during the storm, churches were asked to open their doors to provide refuge to [all, including] undocumented and even illegals during the storm, and after, and before,” Fernander said.
“We know that there are different [categories] in Abaco of people. There are those who are illegal. There are those who are undocumented and there are those who are legal.
Fernander continued: “I believe there ought to be a humane way to process. The sanctity of the church has been set by many treaties, which The Bahamas has signed onto. The mere fact that we are desecrating the sanctity of the church is of great concern.”
He added: “I think there is a misunderstanding of the role of the church in this matter and we have to be careful of labeling the church as a place where we are hiding people, when it is a place of sanctity.”
Scores of displaced residents, who have chosen to remain in Abaco, have sought refuge in churches.
In New Haitian Mission Baptist Church in Treasure Cay over 60 people reside, according to Abaco Christian Council Vice President Sarone Kennedy.
Kennedy told Eyewitness News Online immigration officer visited the church in early October, though he made clear that the officers advised they were not searching for anyone at the time.
Displaced residents in AB Apostolic (AB) and New International Gospel Mission in Marsh Harbour; however, have reportedly been told by authorities to leave as the churches are not designation post-storm shelters.
Fernander noted that there are local presidents of the Christian Council in Abaco and Grand Bahama who can act as liaisons in matter related to the church, including authorities’ interest in entering these properties.
“If it is that you want church leaders to speak to church leaders and be the buffer between the state and the church, and entity that is recognize by the government is the Christian Council that has local presidents,” he said.
Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness, Recovery and Restoration Iram Lewis has said recently he was not aware of any ultimatum given to clear churches.
Last month, Minister of Immigration Elsworth Johnson said churches in the affected island cannot be used as “means to circumvent the law” under the guise of shelters, though he said he was not aware of immigration officers targeting them.
The minister has acknowledged the need for sensitivity, but maintained the government cannot allow people to break the law by calling a place a shelter that “in law is not a shelter and has not been designated as a shelter by the act”.
Yesterday, Fernander expressed concern about storm victims who have lost documents, but have a right to be in The Bahamas, being “bundled up and called illegal”.
“You have to give them due process to try and legally retrieve those documents or start the process again of affidavits and the like and it’s not a one, two process,” he said.
“Anybody who has ever dealt with that process knows that it is very detailed in what is necessary for people to have some kind of verification that they are to be in the country.”
The council president added that he has received expressions of concern from the League of Haitian Pastors about some of interactions between immigration officers and displaced residents in the church.
Fernander visited Abaco last Wednesday.
As it relates to the recovery efforts on the island, he opined that progress is being made to systematically cleanup.
He also noted the units being established to accommodate government workers to assist with the recovery effort was almost ready for use.