Bishop of Feldkirch (Austria), Benno Elbs

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

An Austrian bishop has participated in a rally for persecuted Christians and for Christian refugees in danger of deportation, denouncing in the process the broken asylum seeker system in the country.

Driving the news

Bishop of Feldkirch Benno Elbs has joined a support group in the western Austrian state of Vorarlberg for two vulnerable Christians living in the region who have had their petitions for asylum rejected.

Go deeper

One of those Christians in danger of deportation is Hashem Arefi, a 33-year-old Iranian who fled to Austria in 2015 after becoming interested in the Bible and was later personally prepared for baptism and confirmation by Bishop Elbs.

Arefi, who currently resides in a reception centre for refugees, faces the death penalty for conversion from Islam should he be returned to his country of origin.

However, the Austrian Federal Office for Immigration and Asylum (BFA) considers Arefi’s conversion to have been bogus, according to local media, and for that reason has rejected his plea to stay in the country.

That’s despite Elbs’ and other Austrian Church figures’ assessment that Arefi is a “credible Christian”, for which evaluation the bishop cited the fact that the Iranian migrant has been active in the parish of Feldkirch-Tisis for two years and has a social network that supports him in housing and integration issues.

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Arefi also has a job offer from a company in the city of Bregenz and over thirty letters of recommendation, Elbs recalled.

Why it matters

For his close personal knowledge of the Iranian’s situation, the prelate demanded of immigration authorities that “the assessment of a bishop and priests about the religious practice of a person and his belonging to a parish be taken seriously” when weighing up asylum claims.

Bishop Elbs’ implicit criticism of the Austrian BFA is the latest show of general disaffection with the broken asylum system in the country.

That system has come under intense criticism from Christians who denounce cuts to Church asylum provisions and from a broader public which was scandalised by last month’s raid on a convent and its cloistered area to arrest an Afghan refugee who had found safe haven there.

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