Great Britain’s Baptist newspaper is credited with winning a late-hour reprieve for a family of six threatened with deportation to Rwanda, where friends say the husband and father faced certain prison or death.
Jean-Paul Habamenshi, 40, is a Christian Hutu who spoke about against genocide against Tutsis, twice leading to his imprisonment in Rwanda. He and his family fled to the United Kingdom four years ago, believing they would be killed in Africa.
London’s Home Office, a government department dealing with law and public order, including immigration and granting of asylum, late last month sent 10 policemen to arrest the family in a dawn raid of their home in Glasgow, Scotland.
Habamenshi was preparing a Bible study, while his children slept. He begged officers to let him or his 37-year-old wife, Agatha, wake the children, but they barged into their rooms anyway.
The couple and their four children–Patrick, 10; Shamma, 7; Lisa, 4; and 12-month-old Hannah–were taken to an immigration center in the south of England, where they awaited a deportation order.
Friends protested the arrests and mounted a campaign for their support, including members of Queen’s Park Baptist Church in Glasgow, where they are members.
Edwin Gunn, pastor of the church, decried the raid on their home as “excessive and unnecessary” in a news story in the Sept. 1 issue of The Baptist Times.
Both the Queen’s Park congregation and Thornhill Baptist Church in Southampton, where the family attended before moving to Scotland three years ago, held prayer vigils. The congregations had been campaigning for months for the family to be granted asylum.
“I believe that in this case, the immigration officials have got it wrong,” Gunn told the Baptist newspaper. “This family must be allowed to stay in Scotland.”
A retired minister from Arbroath, in Angus, Scotland, read the Baptist Times article and called his member of Parliament, Mike Weir, who immediately phoned the Home Office and demanded the family’s release.
They were let go just hours before they were scheduled to be put on a plane back to Rwanda, according to an update in the paper’s current issue.
“I want to thank The Baptist Times for highlighting their case,” campaigner Simon Mbarushimana told the newspaper. “It was amazing how quickly things happened after the story appeared.”
At first only Jean-Paul was released, Mbarushimana said, causing him to fear that his wife and children still might be deported without him. After a continuing around-the-clock effort, however, the others were let go and granted a judicial review, which could take a year or more.
While still facing an uncertain future, the family received a standing ovation on Sunday when they returned to Queen’s Park Baptist Church. “It is wonderful to see them all back and to know that God answers prayer,” Gunn told a crowd of 600 worshippers.
Following the service, Jean-Paul Habamenshi said he wanted to “give thanks to God and everyone who have campaigned for the family.”
“When they handcuffed me in front of the children, I told the policeman that God was holding my hand, he didn’t need to handcuff me. I just surrendered myself to His will,” he said.
“In the car, the policeman asked if I was a Christian and I told him I was. He looked a bit sheepish and just stared ahead, not talking to me.”
The arrests came amid controversy over new anti-terrorism laws pushed through by Prime Minister Tony Blair, making it easier to deport or detain suspected terrorists since July’s suicide bombings killed 52 commuters on London’s public transportation network. Human-rights groups have criticized the law, saying criminal laws should be used against terrorists instead of immigration laws.
While the Habamenshi family’s case isn’t directly related to Blair’s crackdown, it has created added pressure to deport people whose asylum applications are rejected and raised concerns about the impact on families.
“It is clear the government just wants to indiscriminately cut the number of asylum seekers in the country,” Kevin Jones, a friend of the family, told the Glasgow Evening Times.
Jones, a member of Thornhill Baptist Church, drove north to join the family’s homecoming on Sunday.
“There are many, many people who need to be thanked,” he told the Baptist Times. “We are determined the family will not be sent back to Rwanda, and we urge people to keep us in their prayers.”
Habamenshi said his family never lost their faith and even organized worship services inside the Yarls Wood detention center. “You know, people say Yarls Wood is a sad place, but we were all singing the praises of the Lord,” he said. “The guards could not understand us. They thought we must be mad.”
The family plans to stay in Glasgow while their appeal is considered. One of the sons, Patrick, is goalie for a highly rated youth soccer team and hopes one day to play professionally.
Queen’s Park pastor Gunn said the Home Office behaved “shamefully” over the episode, describing its actions and attitudes as “disgraceful.”
One of the church’s ministries is a drop-in service each Wednesday for asylum seekers, who can receive services such as food and clothing, advice on a variety of matters and help with socializing and moving into mainstream society.
A description of the program on the church Web site notes that rising tides of fundamentalism, nationalism and religious extremism have closed doors to many traditional mission fields in recent years.
“However, many of the people from these countries, in providence and wisdom of God, have come to this country in huge number,” it says. “We as church saw the need and opportunity to reach out these needy people, opening a drop-in center.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.