Juliana Seelmann, a nun at the Franciscan convent of Oberzell Monastery in southern Germany, was found guilty this week of aiding in the illegal residence in Germany of two Nigerian women. She was fined several hundred euros.
She had helped two women from Nigeria who said they were trying to escape forced prostitution in Italy, where they had first taken refuge. After the German authorities sent them back to Italy, where forced prostitution awaited them again, they were able to find their way under the protection of the church, according to a practice often referred to in Germany as “church asylum”. .
Juliana Seelmann was convicted of aiding the unauthorized stay in Germany of Nigerian refugees
Religious asylum means the temporary admission of refugees by a parish in order to avoid deportation. The objective is the resumption or review of the asylum or immigration procedure for the individual refugee. The practice has a long history in Germany.
After the influx of refugees to Germany in 2015 and 2016, several asylum seekers saw their applications rejected.
Churches prevented 498 evictions in the first quarter of 2018, but in 2019 authorities rejected nearly all of the churches’ asylum cases. Nuns and priests refer to article 4 of the German constitution, which guarantees freedom of faith and conscience.
This is also what the nun Seelmann cited in her defense.
No legal exception for churches
But German prosecutors argue that the church premises do not enjoy any legal exceptions or special status. And the police and the prosecution must have access to people staying there to carry out evictions if they have been ordered.
Thus, several priests or nuns who gave refuge to refugees in the premises of the church were prosecuted for violating German law. Seelmann’s case is the third in the space of just a few years.
Mechthild Thürmer, the abbess of a Bavarian monastery, made German headlines in 2020.
For several decades, it has provided refuge to dozens of refugees. In 2020, she was charged with unlawfully helping people avoid deportation and was convicted. She said she received several offers from other people to pay her € 2,500 ($ 3,051) fine, but she declined. She refuses to pay.
“People in such a terrible situation need help,” she told DW.
Thürmer argues that at the end of the day, no German court would find someone guilty of trying to help – this is “a Christian’s highest duty.” A guilty verdict would simply be “inhumane,” she said.
“The dignity of every person is equal,” she added, paraphrasing the German constitution. “Having said that, ‘every person.’ Not “all Germans”.
In 2019, Protestant pastor Ulrich Gampert was ordered by a court in southern Germany to pay a fine of € 3,000 for taking in an Afghan refugee who was to be deported.
Making religious asylum “more difficult”
The latest series of cases does not surprise Dieter Müller, a Jesuit and vice-president of the non-profit Asylum in the Church. Müller told DW that there had been a “sharp increase” in investigations into religious asylum in Bavaria since 2017. The Southern State Prosecutor confirmed this. Many of the hundreds of cases against church officials and other members have been dismissed.
“I have had four cases against me, all of which were dismissed,” Müller said, although criminal charges are now pending.
“We are seeing an escalation,” he said. “The case will not be closed. Instead, it will be fully prosecuted in court as three people have so far refused to pay fines.”
The state’s lawsuit is an “effort to make religious asylum more difficult,” Müller said.
Protestant pastor Ulrich Gampert fined € 3,000 for hosting an Afghan refugee
Germany set up a hardship committee in 2005, which reviews individual cases of failed asylum seekers. This offers an alternative to religious asylum and gives individuals a legal possibility to review their case.
German politicians rarely comment on the issue of religious asylum. But during what is called a “major election year,” activists took the opportunity of an Ecumenical Church convention in Frankfurt in May to write to the three main politicians who were in attendance.
Recently, a group of church officials and lay people posed the question of church asylum to senior politicians in a letter-writing campaign. Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens are running to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor in the parliamentary elections in September.
All three were asked if religious asylum can be legally justified. So far only Baerbock has responded by writing: “This act of Christian charity must not be made impossible by the threat of punishment from the state.
The leading Green Party politician went on to say that religious asylum is often the last “lifeline” for those affected. A rule of law that wants to prevent this “shows weakness, not strength,” she said.
This text has been translated from German.
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