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German Christians condemn police raids on asylum churches

21 June 2024

Alamy

The Rt Revd Ralf Meister, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hanover, at a press conference on church asylum, with Daniela Behrens, Minister of the Interior of Lower Saxony

The Rt Revd Ralf Meister, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hanover, at a press conference on church asylum, with Daniela Behrens, Minister...

GERMAN church workers have warned that their country’s unique practice of church asylum could be under threat, after a spate of unexplained police raids on parishes that are sheltering refugees.

“Several cases have ended in deportation; so this is a new situation for us — and, since no explanations were given, we can only speculate about the implications,” explained Fr Dieter Müller, deputy chairman of Germany’s Ecumenical Federal Working Group for Asylum in the Church, known by its acronym BAG.

“The granting of church asylum is a long-standing tradition here, which government officials have pledged to respect. It shouldn’t be disrupted.”

The Jesuit priest spoke amid growing complaints about high-handed police operations against church communities that are providing temporary protection to homeless refugees.

He told the Church Times that Churches had used their “special relationship” with the state in Germany to obtain agreement, in 2015, for parishes to take in a small proportion of asylum-seekers facing deportation under the EU’s 2003 Dublin Regulation, which requires claims to be examined in the country of first entry.

He added that the agreement, updated in 2022, recognised church asylum as “expressing a Christian humanitarian tradition”, but said that almost all “hardship dossiers” compiled on behalf of refugees were rejected by the Ministry’s Federal Office for Migration, with no clear procedures prescribed for subsequent official action.

“Officials have repeatedly assured us that they won’t intervene from outside, and that it’s up to us to decide when such claims should end,” Fr Müller said. “I think German public opinion doesn’t properly understand what’s happening. We are trying to explain the situation more clearly with an open-source petition for people to sign.”

At least seven forced evictions from churches have been reported since 2023 in Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, provoking calls for urgent Church-government talks.

Among recent media-profiled cases, police detained and deported a family seeking to avoid Russia’s military draft, at a Protestant church in Uelzen, while an Afghan refugee was separated from his pregnant wife and sent to Romania.

Two Syrian teenagers were reported to have faced harsh conditions after also being forcibly deported from church asylum, to, respectively, Denmark and Bulgaria.

In his interview with the Church Times, Fr Müller said that only 2065 people had sought church protection nationwide during 2023, out of almost 77,000 awaiting deportation to other EU countries, making church asylum a “relatively minor issue.”

He said that the latest police actions were unrelated to recent European Parliament elections, in which support rose for far-Right politicians, especially in eastern Germany.

“I hope the Migration Office will clarify the situation soon, and provide a tighter definition of what does and doesn’t constitute a hardship case,” Fr Müller said. “Evangelical Church leaders have already expressed concern and demanded greater respect for church premises; so it may be that talks are already under way in the background.”

The BAG website provides advice for refugees seeking “temporary protection” at German churches, and defends the constitutional right of Christian congregations to “stand up for people threatened with danger” or facing “unacceptable hardships”.

“By granting church asylum, congregations stand between the authorities and refugees — they create time for further negotiations, and for exhausting all legal remedies,” the Ecumenical Federal Working Group says.

“The admittedly small protective element of church asylum has saved the lives of several thousand people, providing impetus within the established Church, enabling conversion, and challenging assertions. Many communities have experienced strength in solidarity with refugees.”

Among recent statements, the refugee representative for the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Bishop Christian Stäblein, told Germany’s Evangelical Press Agency that the use of “coercive measures” by police raised “clear questions about the authorities’ handling of church asylum”, while a spokesman for Germany’s Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Matthias Kopp, said that his Church would also “monitor developments” and “advocate future respect for the church asylum tradition”.

“The whole European asylum system is unfair, a kind of lottery — wherever people arrive, they have to stay and be registered, often in very difficult conditions,” Fr Müller said. His own Nuremberg church currently houses a “traumatised” Iraqi family, he told the Church Times.

“Pushbacks, beatings, and detentions are routine, and that’s why we intervene as Churches when people come to Germany — to protect them from hardships they’ve already suffered, often in other EU countries.”

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