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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.


Sanctuary as a sacred place

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) 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 is 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 Anglican/Episcopal churches, the term "sanctuary" also describes only the area enclosed by the altar rail. 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, the Lutheran Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church, altar rails sometimes mark the edge of the sanctuary or chancel.

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