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14. Churches and Altars, as Places of Refuge

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER IX. Of Churches and Sacred Places

14. Churches and Altars, as Places of Refuge

The ancient historians and christian fathers mention many instances in which the church and the altar were made a safe place of refuge not only for Christians, but for Jews and pagans. Even by barbarous nations the church was respected as a sacred asylum. Both Jews and Gentiles had long been familiar with similar usages. The christian church therefore, like the pagan temples, and Jewish cities of refuge, very naturally became a sacred retreat, which avenging justice feared to invade. This right was first established under the reign of Constantine the Great, and was confirmed and enlarged by succeeding emperors; but the privilege was greatly abused and early became the subject of complaint, A. D. 392, as preventing the ends of justice by offering a hiding-place for every fugitive from justice. Arcadius, at the instigation of Etropius, A. D. 397, is said to have abrogated the right within his empire. The clergy were uniformly opposed to this decree of Arcadius. The council of Coletum in Africa, A. D. 449, sent a delegation to the emperor for its repeal. Chrysostom especially distinguished himself by his zeal against it;. from him it appears that Arcadius did not repeal his law. But this was done in relation to the Western church by his brother Honorius, A. D. 414, which again was further established and enlarged by his son, Theodosius the younger, A. D. 431 . The privileges of this right were finally defined by Justinian, A. D. 535, to this effect, – that the sanctuary should afford no protection to murderers, adulterers, ravishers of virgins, and offenders of the like character, it being the intent of the privilege not to give protection to such criminals, but to offer an asylum to such as were exposed to violence and abuse from them. If therefore, any who were guilty of such crimes fled to the altar for refuge, they were to be immediately taken thence and punished according to law. 

This law of Justinian, however, was strenuously opposed by the clergy as being an invasion of their right of jurisdiction over the churches, and, owing to this cause and the barbarous character of the times, it was never generally observed. The councils of Orange A. D. 441, of Orleans A. D. 511, of Aries A. D. 541, of Magon A. D. 586, of Rheims A. D. 630, of Toledo A. D. 681, etc., severally vindicated this right, and extended protection even to the grossest offenders; and the less efficient sovereign acquiesced in their decisions. Charlemagne himself fully confirmed these privileges. They were now extended to the church-yard and burial-ground, and to the bishop's house; and then again to the chapels, to crucifixes when brought by the priest to the sick; and even to the parsonage. The right was also claimed for cloisters, though it was not often exercised. The synod of Nemours, A. D. 1284, confirmed the privilege even on public inns for strangers, and religious establishments generally. The right was also claimed for the residence of the Roman cardinal, who also was the first to assume the inviolable rights of a public ambassador, jus asyli Legatorum. This, it is well known, has been the subject of much controversy, and as late as the last half of the eighteenth century, was asserted as an important political privilege.

To what extent the privileges above mentioned were abused is evident from the fact, that Innocent III, and Gregory IX, were compelled to make public proclamation that the church should offer no refuge to murderers and high-way robbers. And the council of Cologne decreed, A. D. 1280, that criminals should only find refuge in the church until due deliberation should be had whether they should be subjected to punishment, or receive pardon.

In the Eastern empire, the right in question was the subject of similar controversy and abuse. The famous Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople in the eighth century, was a zealous defender of this right. By a decree of the emperor, it was denied to murderers, robbers, and adulterers; but Theophilus granted this right in favor of his daughter's grave to all offenders. It is remarkable, that even the Turks recognized and respected the sacred privileges of the sanctuary. Since the reformation, these have been abrogated in all evangelical churches, and in all Catholic countries they have either been wholly abolished, or greatly modified.

Cod. Theodos. lib. ix. tit. xlv. 1. 1, 1. 16: Cod. Justin, lib. i. tit. xii. 1.: Socrat. h. e. lib. vi. c. 5: Sozomen, h. e. lib. viii. c. 7.

Coleti Concil. tom. xi. p. 1463.

Homil. in Eutropium. tom. iv. p. 481.

Cod. Justin, i. 12. 1. 2.

Cod. Justin, i. tit. xii. 1. 3: Cod. Theodos. lib. ix. tit. xlv. 1. 4.

Justin. Nov. constit, xvii. c. 7.

Capitul Car. M. A. D. 789. c. 2: Copit. ii. A. D. 803. c. 3.

Lud. Thomassini discipl. eccl. P. 2. lib. iii. c.lOO. p. 686.

Dunt Gregor. lib. iii. tit. xlix. c. 6.

Cedreni, Hist. 523: Histor. Alex. Annae. Comn. lib. ii.: Nicephor. Gregor. hist. lib. ix.


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