Sanctuary has multiple meanings. A sanctuary is the consecrated area of a church or temple around its tabernacle or altar. An animal sanctuary is a place where animals live and are protected. In modern parlance the term is used to mean a place of safety.
In Europe, Christian churches were sometimes built on land considered as a particularly 'holy spot', perhaps where a miracle or martyrdom had taken place or where a holy person was buried. Examples are St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and St. Albans Cathedral in England, which commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Peter (the first Pope, according to Catholics) and Saint Alban (the first Christian martyr in Britain), respectively. The place, and therefore the church built there, was considered to have been sanctified (made holy) by what happened there. In modern times, the Roman Catholic Church has continued this practice by placing in the altar of each church, when it is consecrated for use, a box (the sepulcrum) containing relics of a saint. The relics box is removed when the church is taken out of use as a church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the antimension on the altar serves a similar function. It is a cloth icon of Christ's body taken down from the cross, and typically has the relics of a saint sewn into it. In addition, it is signed by the parish's bishop, and represents his authorization and blessing for the Eucharist to be celebrated on that altar.
The area around the altar was also considered holy because of the physical presence of God in the Eucharist, both during the Mass and in the tabernacle on the altar the rest of the time. So that people could tell when Jesus was there (in the tabernacle), the "sanctuary lamp" would be lit, indicating that anyone approaching the altar should genuflect (bow by bending the knee and inclining the head), to show respect for Him. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine rite and Coptic Orthodox churches, the sanctuary is separated from the nave (where the people pray) by an iconostasis, literally a wall of icons, with three doors in it. In other Oriental Orthodox traditions, a sanctuary curtain is used. In most Protestant Churches, the term sanctuary denotes the entire worship area while the term chancel is used to refer to the area around the altar-table. In many traditions, such as the Anglican Church, Roman Catholic Church, and United Methodist Church, altar rails sometimes mark the edge of the sanctuary or chancel.
The area around the altar came to be called the "sanctuary," and that terminology does not apply to Christian churches alone: King Solomon's temple, built in about 950 BC, had a sanctuary ("Holy of Holies") where the tabernacle ("Ark of the Covenant") was, and the term applies to the corresponding part of any house of worship. In most modern synagogues, the main room for prayer is known as the sanctuary, to contrast it with smaller rooms dedicated to various other services and functions.
The tabernacle (dwelling place of God) within the temple in the history of Israel corresponds into today as the dwelling place Christians create within their hearts for God. They believe that since Jesus Christ came and died on the cross, ripping the curtain of the temple (Mark 15:37-39, NIV) the dwelling of God no longer dwelt within the tabernacle alone, but rather within man who accepted Christ's sacrifice.
Sanctuary was also a right to be safe from arrest in the sanctuary of a church or temple, recognized by English law from the fourth to the seventeenth century.
Many ancient peoples recognized a religious "right of asylum", protecting criminals (or those accused of crime) from legal action to some extent. This principle was adopted by the early Christian church, and various rules developed for what the person had to do to qualify for protection and just how much protection it was.
In England, King Ethelbert made the first laws regulating sanctuary in about AD 600. By Norman times, there had come to be two kinds of sanctuary: All churches had the lower-level kind, but only the churches the king licensed had the broader version. The medieval system of asylum was finally abolished entirely in England by James I in 1623.
During the Wars of the Roses, when the Yorkists or Lancastrians would suddenly get the upper hand by winning a battle, some adherents of the losing side might find themselves surrounded by adherents of the other side and not able to get back to their own side, so they would rush to sanctuary at the nearest church until it was safe to come out. A prime example is Queen Elizabeth Woodville, consort of Edward IV of England:
In 1470, when the Lancastrians briefly restored Henry VI to the throne, Edward's queen was living in London with several young daughters. She moved with them into Westminster for sanctuary, living there in royal comfort until Edward was restored to the throne in 1471 and giving birth to their first son Edward during that time. When King Edward died in 1483, Elizabeth (who was highly unpopular with even the Yorkists and probably did need protection) took her five daughters and youngest son (Richard, Duke of York; Prince Edward had his own household by then) and again moved into sanctuary at Westminster. She had all the comforts of home; she brought so much furniture and so many chests that the workmen had to knock holes in some of the walls to get everything in fast enough to suit her.
Sanctuary of refugees from Central American civil wars was a movement in the 1980s. Part of a broader anti-war movement positioned against U.S. foreign policy in Central America, by 1987 440 sites in the United States had been declared "sanctuary cities" open to migrants from this civil wars in the Central America region.
Sanctuary of immigrants: These sites included university campuses and cities. From the 1980s continuing into the 2000s, there also have been instances of churches providing "sanctuary" for short periods to migrants facing deportation in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, the United States, and Canada, among other nations. In 2007, Iranian refugee Shahla Valadi was granted asylum in Norway after spending seven years in church sanctuary after the initial denial of asylum. Norwegian authorities will not, as a rule, enter churches to deport illegal immigrants. From 1983 to 2003 Canada experienced 36 sanctuary incidents. The "New Sanctuary Movement" organization estimates that at least 600,000 people in the United States have at least one family member in danger of deportation.