Germany’s Faith-Based Sanctuary Activists Have Created a National Movement

Germany’s Faith-Based Sanctuary Activists Have Created a National Movement

Germany’s Faith-Based Sanctuary Activists Have Created a National Movement

But it’s under growing pressure from politicians waging war on the right to asylum.


When Amanuel received a letter notifying him that his application for asylum had been rejected in Germany, he felt like he couldn’t breathe. The notice stated that he would be deported to Italy in two weeks.

He had entered Europe through southern Italy after a life-threatening journey from Eritrea. For Amanuel, then 26, Italy was the place where he’d slept on a road outside Naples, subsisting on stale bread and Coke. He did not think he could survive on the streets again, living without human contact or protection.

A few hours later, Amanuel remembered that there was a nearby Lutheran church sheltering people without papers. He called the church; the pastor immediately asked him to come for an interview. It was late October, and Amanuel donned a donated coat to wrap himself more tightly against the chill. His life story ran in a loop inside his head as he walked to the bus stop; he had to be careful to get his facts right in English, his second language. But the meeting went well, and to his surprise, he received Asyl in der Kirche—“church asylum.” For the time being, Amanuel was shielded from arrest and deportation.

Over the past three years, as the number of people seeking asylum in Germany has climbed, the faith-based movement to offer sanctuary to those who face violence if they are extradited has grown from a handful of churches to a national movement. In 2005, 39 churches self-identified as members, providing 122 people with refuge; today, the number of churches has grown to more than 550. In the first quarter of 2018, churches prevented about 500 people from being deported, and as of August, 868 people were living in church asylum, including 175 children.

But the network harboring Amanuel (his name has been changed for safety reasons) is under mounting scrutiny as politicians on the right—and increasingly the center—wage war on the right to asylum. The state’s previously tolerant position toward church asylum is shifting, forcing people involved in the movement to decide what they are willing to risk in order to shield others from expulsion.

Germany’s sanctuary movement, the largest in Europe, differs radically from its counterpart in the United States, where it is usually offered secretly to protect individuals from immigration enforcement. German churches communicate their decision to grant sanctuary to federal authorities, operating under the principle that they have the moral mandate to shield individuals from unjust asylum decisions.

In typical cases, such as Amanuel’s, a person or family approaches a congregation and the case is quickly reviewed to see if it fits certain criteria, including whether deportation would result in unacceptable social hardship, torture, or death. If the case qualifies, and if the church has living space, it offers sanctuary. Immediately afterward, a church representative notifies the local and federal authorities.

Amanuel is slender and fit, with curly black hair and a noticeably gentle demeanor. In Eritrea, he trained and worked as a nurse. As a young man he was in constant danger of lifelong reconscription into the military, which in Eritrea, the UN has said, constitutes slave labor. He decided to escape, crossing the border to Ethiopia and living in a refugee camp. But conditions were abysmal; after a few months, Amanuel left for Europe. He traveled with smugglers for two weeks to reach Sudan and then, after arranging passage, crossed the desert in a truck to Libya, where he waited several weeks before boarding a ship to Italy.

For reasons Amanuel does not understand, Italy denied him asylum, which is how he ended up on the streets. Each night he lay on a mat in the dirt, straining to become invisible. Thousands of Eritreans, Sudanese, and other people arriving from Libya before him have discovered that even if they are granted asylum in Italy, it’s almost impossible to live a decent life. Italy’s commitment to support asylum-seekers has never been lower; in May, a new right-wing populist government came to power on an anti-migration platform. So far, the government has promised to create detention centers for those crossing the Mediterranean and has closed its ports to rescue ships with hundreds of people on board.

In Italy, Amanuel heard that Germany was a safer option, and he arrived in Hamburg in the fall of 2016. What he did not realize was that the EU’s Dublin Regulation, in place since 1997, requires that refugees be returned to the first EU country in which they sought asylum. Germany temporarily dropped the Dublin restriction for Syrian refugees in 2015, but this waiver was never applied to those of other nationalities. Germany rejected Amanuel’s asylum application as a “Dublin case.”

After the church granted Amanuel sanctuary, it hired a lawyer to appeal the original asylum decision. Churches only accept people who they think present a strong case for appeal. So far, by their own count, they have been extremely successful, with positive outcomes 75 percent of the time. Usually this means that the person can either reapply for asylum or receive temporary protection; at a minimum, they are not deported.

In return for the church’s transparency, the government has followed an informal policy of respecting church asylum. Although the government could legally order police to raid church property at any time, they have been hesitant to do so due to fear of popular backlash. A majority of Germans—some 56 million—still identify as Christian, and church asylum has enjoyed relatively broad public support. Another is the recognition—at least, behind closed doors—that the asylum system increasingly makes mistakes.

Amanuel had been in church asylum for nine months when I met him. He was living in a gardening hut on property owned by the church; the exterior of the hut was painted salmon pink. A giant vine hung by the door like a curtain.

The length of time in church asylum varies widely—from a few days to years—but the average in Germany now is at least a few months. The time for an appeal to wind through Germany’s courts is taking longer than ever because of the huge number of appeals; it has been reported that at the end of 2017, more than 350,000 cases are pending. Previously German law stipulated that Dublin cases must be resolved within six months; if it took longer, the person could not be deported. Keeping a person in sanctuary can run out the clock on deportation, but it became harder to do so this August, when a new law took effect raising the amount of time to resolve Dublin cases to 18 months, in cases where the asylee is not traceable.

Most people in sanctuary have waited years to become legal and restart their lives; the additional prolonged period is difficult to endure. One pastor described it as a “prison among friends.”

Each weekday morning, Amanuel attended a volunteer-led German-language class. He struggled to study properly, because, like so many other things, it felt pointless without knowing his future. But at least the school served as a dose of daily human interaction; there was also free Internet. Afterward, he returned to his cabin, afraid to venture into the city and risk an encounter with police.

In addition to housing, the church provides a stipend of 200 euros a month. Other services differ by parish; funds are raised by individual donations from members. Some friendly churchgoers brought Amanuel a television, and he was assigned a social worker, Susanna, who thoughtfully gave him a phone card. Amanuel had not spoken to his family in over a year. “My mother cried when I called her,” he said, holding back tears. “It’s very difficult to live without family in Europe.”

In order to survive on his stipend, Amanuel cooked all his meals in his tiny kitchen, where there was a stovetop, a mini-fridge, and a sink. He stewed chunks of beef in tomatoes and chilies and sliced boiled potatoes into a green salad. For special occasions, he prepared injera, the traditional flatbread common in Eritrea. Amanuel ate perched on the edge of a bed, atop a fleece blanket with a reindeer-and-snowflake motif. The silence was punctuated by bird song.

Although Hamburg is only 68 miles from the North Sea, Amanuel has never visited the shore. After crossing the Mediterranean, he fears the ocean, which he experienced as a black vastness. Four people died on the ship after his, suffocating below deck. At night, he sometimes remembers the people in his desert convoy who became sick. They pleaded for help before the smugglers dumped them off the truck and drove away. “They cried, ‘My brother, my brother, please help me,’” he said, his voice barely audible.

Every other Sunday, Amanuel attends a nearby church that hosts a service with an Eritrean priest. Somehow, he clings to his faith through the uncertainty and fear. “The church is good, but only because there is not another solution,” Amanuel said. “There is not another chance for me, only this chance.”

Europe was not what it had appeared. Despite the kindness of many strangers, the loneliness has seemed interminable.

In early May 2017, cold rain fell from a slate gray sky over Hamburg’s Elbe River. Hamburg is one of Europe’s richest towns; the recently constructed opera house cost $860 million. But residents in the wealthy neighborhood of Blankenese do not welcome asylum seekers; they drove their limousines and yachts into the street in 2016 to protest the construction of refugee housing. Yet Hamburg also boasts an energetic artistic community and a history of strong leftist movements.

Not far from the central train station, at the Elbfaire Cafe, a local church organization was hosting a dinner for its sanctuary-movement volunteers. A young man washed guests’ hands with rose water. The church employees served the volunteers a three-course meal to thank them for their service, starting with asparagus soup.

The dinner began with a short lecture. Dr. Ursula Günther, a religious scholar, focused on how Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all have a history of extending hospitality to strangers. “It is known that when the guest comes, the prophet Mohammed also comes,” said Günther.

Religion is not a factor in deciding whether to offer church asylum, and participating groups include both Protestants and Catholics. (Mosques cannot offer asylum because Islam is not recognized as a state religion in Germany. As a result, mosques do not receive state funds or have the same negotiating power.) The largest nationalities sheltered in 2017, according to the church-sanctuary movement, were Eritrean, Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian. For every person the church takes into sanctuary, there are many more who are turned away, even though they may have compelling cases.

Sanctuary stems from the Latin sanctuarium, which means a container for keeping holy things or people. As Katharyne Mitchell, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, points out, the modern sanctuary movement draws on the concept of church property as sacred space. Churches in Europe offered refuge to people accused of crimes as early as AD 600, but such practices were mostly eliminated by the 17th century, as justice became the state’s responsibility.

Mitchell notes that the sanctuary movement now builds on the idea of both a “higher law,” tied to religious belief, and international human-rights law. Such a distinction creates the potential for resistance to state acts that fall short of these principles. A European sanctuary movement charter document pledges: “where deportation looms and human dignity and lives are threatened, to grant refugees sanctuary in our churches until an acceptable solution is found for them. Not to shrink back, should open confrontation with civil authorities become necessary.”

The church hasn’t always exercised moral leadership in Western Europe for people fleeing conflict and violence. During the Holocaust, the majority of Christian churches did not publicly oppose Hitler and the Holocaust. But in the reckoning that followed, some religious communities accepted the principles outlined in the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the 1970s, some European churches became advocates for a variety of pressing global human-rights issues, such as campaigns against torture.

The process of providing church asylum has further politicized both church leadership and congregation members around migration. For many volunteers, it’s the first time they have intimately interacted with someone seeking safety. “We can’t believe our eyes that they were rejected [for asylum]; we see things that you don’t see in the media,” a woman at my table told me. The people around her nodded. “This work changes everything,” said the young man next to me.

Volunteers in the sanctuary movement encounter an age-old question: If a law or policy is unjust, should you obey it?

The EU’s struggle to cope with migration over the past few years shows how quickly member countries can revert to national interests over those of the greater good.

The EU’s Common European Asylum System (CEAS) envisioned that all member states would protect the rights of asylum seekers to a fair process, but implementation has been uneven, especially in many Eastern European countries. Rich countries have also failed to relocate refugees who are stranded in Italy and Greece. The current Dublin system (Dublin III) is broadly considered to be a failed policy, as noted by the EU’s own internal evaluation, which found that Dublin did not share responsibility fairly across the union or sufficiently consider the needs of asylum applicants.

Most of those in shelters are affected by the Dublin policy, which the sanctuary movement has harshly criticized. For example, a minister in Berlin told me about a Syrian man in church asylum who was first fingerprinted in Bulgaria, where he was held in a prison for three days without food and water, a form of torture. The church concluded that forcing him back to Bulgaria under the Dublin protocol was inhumane.

Politicians, including some from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, have criticized the church for interfering in the state’s enforcement of Dublin. In an interview in 2015, Thomas de Maizière, who was Merkel’s interior minister then, said, “We are now talking about hundreds of cases in which there has been a systematic hindrance of transfers according to Dublin…and that is misuse of church asylum.” (After public backlash, de Maizière had to clarify his remarks; he said he was a Christian and supported the practice.)

While Germany’s sanctuary movement has existed since 1983, the current agreement between the churches and government originated in a closed-door meeting in 2015, as the number of Syrian refugees entering Germany was swiftly increasing. According to Jan Drunkenmölle, formerly of the German Ecumenical Committee on Church Asylum, the deal initially functioned well.

But things started to change in 2016. The government issued more appeal rejections, often with the same reasoning used previously, indicating that it had not considered the new evidence presented by the church’s lawyers. This change coincided with increasing pressure across the political spectrum to reduce migration, as well as administrative changes at the federal migration and asylum office.

In December 2016, a terrorist attack at a Berlin Christmas market by a failed Tunisian asylum seeker killed 12 people, which further stoked public pressure to speed up deportations. In the most recent German elections, in September 2017, the far-right and openly racist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gained 13 percent of the vote, grabbing seats in the Bundestag for the first time on an anti-migration platform.

This summer, Angela Merkel’s government almost collapsed over pressure from within her own coalition to seal Germany’s border. Merkel’s current interior minister, Horst Seehofer, from the center-right Christian Social Union of Bavaria, demanded that she close the border and turn away those refugees who had already sought asylum elsewhere in Europe. Their compromise was to implement passport controls at the previously open border with Austria and to create detention centers near the border for asylum-seekers registered in other EU countries. The border checks have already begun; reports indicate that they are being conducted on the basis of race. Meanwhile, the AfD is now publicly criticizing church asylum, saying it violates state law.

Nowhere are current tensions around church asylum more sharply illuminated than in the southern state of Bavaria, where Seehofer is from and where his CSU party has enforced deportations more strongly than have other federal states. Over the past year, Bavaria has started charging church leaders and refugees who participate in church asylum with breaking the law.

Most people seeking asylum in Germany enter Bavaria first, given its border with Austria. The state has the highest number of people in sanctuary; its politics are also sharply conservative, and it boasts some of the strongest government critics of church asylum. Support for the AfD is growing, and an election in October will determine if the CSU, which has governed for most of the past half-century, stays in power.

Doris Otminghaus is a Protestant pastor at a church in Hassfurt, a small town of about 14,000 in Bavaria. In March 2017, she was investigated for assisting “illegal stay” by sheltering refugees at her church. A few months later, Otminghaus was notified that her case was being dropped, with a warning that she could be prosecuted if the practice continued.

When I met her, on the sidelines of a sanctuary conference in Frankfurt in the summer of 2017, Otminghaus was busy trading advice and strategizing with other participants. With her short, curly blonde hair, wire-rim glasses, and cardigan, Otminghaus doesn’t come across as a typical activist. But she said that she will not be intimidated into ceasing her work, which has profoundly changed her.

Otminghaus’s church became involved with sanctuary in March 2016, when another parish asked them for help with two cases. Otminghaus arranged for housing in the church offices, where she also lives. “I think faith does not mean doing huge things, but to start with doing concrete things,” she mused. Since then, Otminghaus, who has protected people from Ethiopia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, has attracted national attention, receiving a human-rights award.

Otminghaus estimates that at least 100 similar cases of pastors being threatened with charges had occurred in Bavaria over the previous year. State prosecutors are supposed to operate independently in Germany, but they are politically appointed, and Otminghaus suspects they receive instruction from higher-up political agencies. She is most disturbed not at her own brush with the law but with the government’s treatment of refugees. Unlike the charges against the pastors, those against the refugees proceeded; some have been found guilty and charged 1,200 euros, which they have no way to pay. Being convicted of any crime can also change someone’s legal status to criminal—making them even more at risk of deportation.

“I don’t believe my state as much as before,” she said. “In Germany and the whole of Europe, the most basic infrastructure is partially broken by the treatment of refugees. The German Constitution says that everyone has a right to asylum.… Germany is breaking its own Constitution when it follows [asylum] procedures that violate this right.”

Otminghaus, who expects to be prosecuted again, plans to take her case before the highest court if convicted. “I’m waiting for it,” she said, smiling shyly. “If the Bavarian state is attacking the church on the level of legal proceedings, we have to answer on the same level.”

In the face of continued measures from politicians to further seal and militarize Europe’s borders, in the midst of public and media debates driven by fear, the sanctuary movement represents the possibility of a future that is propelled by connection instead of division.

Last October, Amanuel messaged me on WhatsApp that he had finally received the news he had been waiting for: permission to stay in Germany legally for the next three years. “I am very happy today,” he wrote.

But across Germany, other asylum-seekers who are not in church sanctuary are increasingly facing deportation, some of them back to countries mired in conflict. On July 4, Germany sent 69 Afghan asylum seekers to Kabul. Interior Minister Seehofer joked publicly that the deportation was a present for his 69th birthday. Six days later, one of the Afghan men, a 23-year-old who had entered Germany as a teenager, killed himself in a hotel room in Kabul.

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