An Austrian bishop has slammed the “blatant injustice” of the deportation of a Christian-convert asylum seeker, saying the removal of the young man from the country “contradicts every human rights convention”.

Driving the news

Bishop of Innsbruck Hermann Glettler issued the damning indictment of the authorities February 7, after the Interior Ministry decided to deport Elias Shir Hasan Zafari, a 29-year-old Afghan who fled from the Taliban and had converted to Catholicism during his four-year stay in Austria.

Zafari was picked up February 2 by agents of the Federal Office for Immigration and Asylum (BFA) in his quarters in Mogersdorf, Burgenland, later to be detained in custody and summarily expelled February 4.

Glettler expressed his “great disappointment and real horror” at the actions of the authorities, who he accused of sending young Christians back to countries where they face “a life-threatening fundamentalist Islam”.

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The Innsbruck bishop called on the Interior Ministry to undertake a reassessment of the situation in Afghanistan, so that the crises and terrorism there can be more “truthfully” acknowledged by officials.

But the bishop reserved his harshest criticisms for the bureaucratic “faith tests” Christian convert asylum seekers are forced to undergo to prove they would be in danger because of their new faith if they returned to their home country.

Glettler denounced that authorities err on the side of “mistrust”, “general suspicion” and scepticism when reviewing Christian convert asylum seeker applications.

As indeed happened, according to the bishop, in the case of the deported Zafari.

“The court did not believe Elias [on] the seriousness of his relationship with God. It denied him any credibility”, Glettler deplored.

The bishop added that the “great psychological stress” of seeking asylum is only compounded by “peculiarly complicated” doctrinal questions posed by immigration tribunals, which the bishop said would stump even the “average Austrian Christian”.

The Catholic Church “strongly reject[s] the religious examinations before the asylum court as state interference in religious matters”, the Bishop of Innsbruck emphasised.

An assessment of the authenticity of a convert’s faith “cannot and must not take place in a judicial interrogation” but instead must be the sole responsibility of Church authorities, Glettler underlined, recalling the Evangelical Church’s similar position on the matter of the “faith tests”.

Why it matters

Zafari’s Eisenstadt diocese had issued an urgent appeal to politicians and civil authorities February 4 not to deport the young Afghan, which the Church said was “well-integrated” into Austrian society.

Deportation could mean a death sentence for Zafari, warned Eisenstadt vicar general Martin Korpitsch, cautioning that the asylum seeker’s life would be “greatly endangered because of his conversion to Christianity”.

Together with Bishop of Eisenstadt, Ägidius Zsifkovics, and Morgendorf priest Anton Pollanz, Korpitsch pleaded with the authorities “to do everything in their power to avoid putting Elias in mortal danger!”, but to no avail.

For the record

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna has also criticised the asylum-seeker “faith tests”, as has Bishop of Feldkirch, Benno Elbs, who joined a support group in Vorarlberg for two vulnerable Christians who have had their asylum petitions rejected.

The Austrian Bishops have called again and again for the charitable application of the humanitarian right to stay in asylum procedures, and have consistently backed the “conscience” decisions of priests and religious houses to provide refuge to asylum seekers on an ad hoc basis.

Next on Novena:

Austrian diocese rallies behind asylum seeker in danger of expulsion: “Deportation could mean a death sentence”

Austrian Church hits out at government over hijab ban for girls, “faith tests” for Christian-convert refugees

Austrian bishop rallies for refugees in danger of deportation, denounces broken asylum system

German, Austrian Christians denounce radical restrictions on Church asylum system for refugees

Afghan refugee arrested in Austrian convent saved from deportation


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.