The holiest area of a place of worship; also a place of refuge from persecution or prosecution, usually in or near a place of worship. The custom of offering sanctuary in specific places goes back to ancient times and was widespread in Europe in the Middle Ages.
Ancient history The ancient Hebrews established six separate towns of refuge, and the Greek temple of Diana at Ephesus provided sanctuary within a radius of two stadia (about 434 m/475 yd). In Roman temples the sanctuary was the cella (inner room), in which stood the statue of the god worshipped there.
Current Christian usage In a Christian church, the sanctuary is the presbytery or portion of the church reserved for the clergy.
History, Britain In the Middle Ages a person who crossed the threshold of a church was under the protection of God. The right to sanctuary was generally honoured by the church and endured by the state, and applied to all crimes except sacrilege.
In legend and medieval art, hunted stags took sanctuary in church porticoes. At Beverley Minster in E Yorkshire, England, the privilege extended a mile and a half around the church; the closer to the centre of this zone the fugitives got, the more sinful it was to remove them. Beverley accumulated numbers of permanent sanctuary claimants, and they were absorbed into the life of the minster. A similar process took place at Westminster Abbey, London. The sanctuary there, next to the cloisters, developed into a small town, with shops and workshops, bringing in useful revenue. Holyrood in Scotland was another sanctuary.
In England the right of a criminal to seek sanctuary was removed by legislation 1623 and again 1697, though for civil offenders it remained until 1723. Immunity was valid for 40 days only, after which the claimant must either surrender, become an outlaw, or go into permanent exile. To claim sanctuary, the fugitive had to wear sackcloth and confess his or her guilt before the coroner.
Viraj Mendis, a Sri Lankan illegal immigrant, claimed sanctuary for two years until January 1989, when police stormed the church in Manchester where he was living and he was deported to Sri Lanka, where he was later killed.
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