Christian leaders are demanding that the government reverse its decision to reject asylum for at-risk refugees.

James Haire, vice president of the Australian National Council of Churches, led a delegation representing 90 percent of Australia's Christians to the nation's capital on August 30. The delegation urged Prime Minister John Howard and the government to show more compassion toward refugees. "We've come to Canberra to show the values that we are famous for," Haire said.

This summer, more than 430 mostly Afghan refugees on the cramped and crippled Norwegian ferry, the MV Tampa, entered the territorial waters of Christmas Island, an Australian territory smaller than Washington, D.C., off the coast of the Indonesian island of Java.

Last summer, Pakistan began sending recent Afghan arrivals at its refugee camps back to their country, claiming they did not deserve refugee status. Fearing persecution, violence, or economic deprivation, some have made a desperate attempt to find safety in Australia.

The government, however, refused them asylum and transferred the refugees to an Australian aircraft carrier. Government officials then successfully appealed a Melbourne federal court decision that ruled their actions illegal. Meanwhile, the government has lobbied the island nation of Nauru, which has a Protestant majority, to accept 300 refugees in exchange for $20 million in economic assistance.

Australia, with a population of 18 million, takes in 12,000 legal refugees each year, second per-capita only to Canada. More than 4,500 asylum seekers have received three-year temporary protection visas in Australia this year, significantly more than the 2,939 evaluated in 2000.

Many Christian leaders support the government's determination to stop the flow of illegal refugees, but they disagree with Canberra's current strategy. Archbishop Francis Carrol, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, says church groups are at the forefront in providing pastoral care, sponsorship, and resettlement.

Anglican pastor Rod Oldfield runs a "house of welcome," providing emergency accommodations for asylum seekers as they await their verdict. "Many people in detention have run away from situations of persecution and are traumatized," Oldfield says.

Related Elsewhere:

The BBC examined Australia's dilemma and its growing number of refugees.

The Age, Melbourne, has archived articles on immigration and the refugees stranded at sea.

According to the BBC, about 6.2 million Afghans are classified as refugees.

Recent coverage of the Australian refugee crisis includes:

Australian refugee deal could destabilize Papua New Guinea government — AAP (Oct. 11, 2001)

PM condemns refugees throwing kids in water — AAP (Oct. 8, 2001)

Fraser criticizes government's refugee policy — AAP (Oct. 7, 2001)

No plans for extra refugees: government — AAP (Sept. 27, 2001)

First asylum seekers land on Nauru — BBC (Sept. 19, 2001)

For more on Australia's asylum seekers, see Yahoo full coverage.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.