A German court charged a nun € 500 for helping Nigerian women threatened with deportation from Germany. The two women are said to have fled forced prostitution in Italy. Different groups criticized the court order and called for a decriminalization of religious asylum.
Juliana Seelmann is a 38-year-old nun who lives and works in the Franciscan Abbey of Oberzell in northern Bavaria. On Wednesday June 2, she was found guilty of aiding an illegal stay and was fined € 500 by the district court of the city of Würzburg.
According to a court spokesperson, the nun must donate the money to a charity and faces an additional fine of € 600 if she commits violations during a two-year probation period.
“We live in a democracy, not in a theocracy. This is a blatant violation of the law that cannot be forgiven,” the judge said. Seelmann confessed and stressed that he had received explicit support for his actions from the Bishop of Würzburg.
The nun had granted religious asylum to a Nigerian woman each in 2019 and 2020 in her abbey. The women are said to have fled forced prostitution in Italy and sought refuge in Germany. According to the European Union Dublin Regulation, the women should have left Germany for Italy, where they first entered the EU.
One of the women, now 23, was sent into forced prostitution by her mother when she was 15, according to the case description by the Diocese of Würzburg. His pimp, a woman, sent him first to Libya, then to Italy. From there she fled to Germany twice and lived in the abbey at the end of 2019 for two months. She now has the right to stay in Germany.
It is not known whether the other woman, who stayed at the abbey from February to May 2020, can stay in Germany. The 34-year-old was also forced into prostitution, the diocese of Würzburg said. In addition, she had contracted HIV from a client.
The diocese argued that religious asylum was justified in both cases because the women had been faced with situations of extreme urgency.
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The German “Ökumenische Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Asyl in der Kirche” (Federal Ecumenical Working Group for Church Asylum) called the court order a “fatal signal”.
“Helping people in desperate situations cannot be a crime,” the advocacy group said in a statement online and on Twitter. “When a court calls such an action inexcusable, it casts an alarming light on the understanding of humanity and questions of conscience in this country.”
The local youth chapter of the German Green Party and the Würzburg Refugee Council also criticized the decision, expressing solidarity with Seelmann and calling for the decriminalization of religious asylum.
In another asylum case unrelated to a church near Würzburg, a court acquitted in late April a monk who had provided refuge to a man born in the Gaza Strip. The court ruled that in this case, religious asylum was protected by the freedom of faith and conscience provided for in the German constitution.
In January, the German asylum office relaxed its restrictions on religious asylum. The changes introduced concern the time limits within which the responsibility of an asylum seeker would be transferred to Germany from other EU countries. Barriers to religious asylum were previously so high that help with difficult cases has been made almost impossible.