By SHAWN POGATCHNIK, Associated Press
Armed with ropes and razors, Afghan asylum-seekers threatened Friday to kill themselves if police try to expel them from a Dublin cathedral where they have mounted a six-day hunger strike.
Mediators, lawyers and human rights activists sought to broker a peaceful solution after police surrounded St. Patrick's Cathedral, determined to end a protest that has shut down a major tourist attraction. About 100 officers deployed inside and around the 13th-century landmark.
About 40 Afghan asylum-seekers, all males aged 17 to 45, occupied the cathedral Sunday and Monday and said they wouldn't eat until Ireland granted them asylum. The Justice Department insisted they leave the church to pursue the proper legal channels.
The confrontation intensified Friday after the Irish Health and Safety Executive, which runs Ireland's hospital system, won a judicial order that designated the seven youngest protesters — all 17 and living in Ireland without their parents — "wards of the court" whose well-being must be protected by the state.
One 19-year-old protester, Samandar Khan, said the teenagers responded by threatening to slit their wrists or hang themselves and some placed makeshift nooses around their necks when police came near. He said one teen collapsed, probably because of his fasting, and was hospitalized.
In the evening, some protesters moved to the cathedral's organ loft and threatened to leap off the 60-foot-high balcony if police tried to grab them.
"There are 10 of us up on the balcony and we can see police beneath us. The younger ones are with us," Ali Amini, 29, said by cell phone. "If they (try to) take us out, we will jump. We are willing to kill ourselves. We are very angry. We are tired and hungry."
Protesters also said they would start refusing to drink liquids, a tactic that could prove fatal within days.
The Church of Ireland, an Anglican-affiliated denomination that owns St. Patrick's, said the young protesters' threat to commit suicide was morally unacceptable and said they must leave.
Justice Department officials and legal experts said mounting a hunger strike makes little sense, given that most of the protesters have not gone through the full process to claim asylum. Most people who successfully win refugee status in Ireland must appeal against initial rejection, a process that takes up to four years.
The protesters' lawyers huddled for hours with a mediator and police commanders inside the cathedral, where most protesters read or slept on makeshift beds and rows of wooden chairs.
The Afghans say they risk torture or death if returned to Afghanistan. Some say they have links to the Taliban regime that was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001; others say they fear Taliban insurgents.
All have refused to tell their stories beyond the barest of details. Some cite fears that their relatives in Afghanistan could be targeted.
Khan said his father was killed, but declined to say how.
Ahmed Ali Yousefi, 17, said the Taliban killed his father and brother. He said he was deported from Iran before being smuggled through Europe to Ireland, where he has been attending a south Dublin high school.
Justice Minister Michael McDowell ruled out making concessions to the Afghans, saying that would set a dangerous precedent and undermine the thousands of other asylum-seekers in Ireland observing the law. He said two protesters already had been granted permission to stay in Ireland.
McDowell said police want to restore St. Patrick's Cathedral "to its proper place as a place of Christian worship," but declined to discuss what tactics officers might use.
Outside the cathedral, about 100 supporters of the Afghans' demands waved placards and chanted through bullhorns.
Ireland, for decades an economically backward nation that suffered from chronic emigration, has experienced its first immigration wave over the past decade amid a booming economy. It has accepted more than 6,000 asylum seekers since 2000, chiefly from Africa.