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German religious face criminal charges for helping refugees

Women Refugees Pray On The Roads Of Lesbos Island


John Burger - published on 06/07/21

Refugees seeking to avoid deportation finding it hard to escape the long arm of the state, even in a church.

Guided by their sense of Christian compassion, several religious persons in Germany are harboring refugees in their churches and convents, lest they get deported.

In return, German officials are leveling criminal charges against the religious.

The German news agency DW (Deutsche Welle) reported that Franciscan Sister Juliana Seelmann was fined several hundred Euros this week after being found guilty of aiding the unauthorized residence in Germany of two Nigerian women. The women had fled from Nigeria to Italy, where they were forced into prostitution. 

DW said the practice of church asylum, in which a church gives temporary housing to refugees so they can avoid deportation, has a long history in Germany.

Churches prevented 498 deportations in the first quarter of 2018, DW said, but in 2019 authorities rejected almost all church asylum cases. 

German prosecutors argue that church premises do not enjoy any legal exception or special status, the wire service reports. 

The crackdown seems sudden. Abbess Mechthild Thürmer had provided refuge to dozens of refugees at her abbey of Kirchschletten in Bavaria for “several decades,” DW said, but in 2020, she was found guilty of illegally aiding individuals to avoid deportation.

Sr. Juliana, in an email to Aleteia, expressed puzzlement about why authorities are cracking down on this practice now. 

“It is also interesting that it is not in the whole of Germany; it is really especially in Bavaria that religious men and women or priests are accused,” she said.

She clarified that although it has been some time since the prosecutor’s office began investigating these cases, the proceedings were always discontinued in the past. “Now there are already four people in Bavaria who have to go to court. But we are making an appeal, to go forward and hopefully to find a way to continue with Church asylum,” she concluded.

It’s not only Catholics who are trying to help refugees, though. In 2019, a Protestant pastor, Ulrich Gampert, was ordered to pay a fine of 3,000 Euros for taking in an Afghan refugee who had been scheduled for deportation.

Jesuit Fr. Dieter Müller, deputy chairman of the nonprofit Asylum in the Church, told DW that there has been a “steep rise” in investigations into church asylum in Bavaria since 2017.

“We’re witnessing an escalation,” Fr. Müller said, adding that there is an “effort to make church asylum more difficult.”

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