An Austrian diocese is rallying behind an asylum seeker in danger of expulsion, warning that in his case “deportation could mean a death sentence”.

Driving the news

The Diocese of Eisenstadt issued an urgent appeal to politicians and civil authorities February 4 not to deport Elias Shir Hasan Zafari, a 29 year old Afghan “well-integrated” into Austrian society after four years in the country and a conversion to Catholicism.

Zafari was picked up by immigration authorities from his quarters in Mogersdorf February 2 and placed in detention, from which he is now in danger of being deported.

But deportation could mean a death sentence for Zafari, warned Eisenstadt vicar general Martin Korpitsch, given that in the Afghanistan of the Taliban 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 called on the Austrian President, Interior Minister and Vice-Chancellor to intervene in Elias’ case out of humanitarian reasons.

Korpitsch pleaded with the authorities “to do everything in their power to avoid putting Elias in mortal danger!”

Zafari has lodged an asylum appeal, but because of bureaucratic delays it could be another six weeks before his case is heard, during which time his Church, sports club and school supporters fear he could be kicked out of Austria.

Go deeper

The asylum seeker system in Austria has been under intense criticism by Catholic Church leaders in recent weeks.

Most recently by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who blasted the administrative – and not ecclesiastical – “faith tests” used to determine the outcome of petitions for asylum in the case of migrants and refugees who have converted to Christianity in the course of their time in Austria.

“A deportation to a Muslim country can be life-threatening for a person who has converted to Christianity”, Cardinal Schönborn warned.

Before that, in early January, Bishop of Feldkirch Benno Elbs also criticised the faith tests and 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.

Elbs demanded 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.

That’s instead of relying solely on immigration officials’ evaluation of the authenticity or otherwise of an asylum seeker’s conversion.

Why it matters

What’s at stake in the broken system of asylum in Austria was dramatically illustrated in early December last year, when police stormed the cloistered area of a convent in Langenlois to arrest and deport an Afghan refugee living there since 2017.

Christian Konrad and Ferry Maier, of the Alliance ‘Menschen Würde Österreich’ (“People Dignity Austria”), cited the case of that arrested asylum seeker – since temporarily saved from deportation – to call on Austrian politicians “to suspend deportations of fully integrated people for the time being” and to develop an asylum policy “worthy of the name”.

“Reason should have priority over symbolic politics” and populist anti-asylum seeker measures, Langenlois convent Superior General Sister Franziscka Bruckner said after the December raid, arguing for the primacy of the humanitarian right to asylum.

Raids like the one on her monastery where the Afghan asylum seeker was holed up are “a slap in the face to every effort aimed at meaningful integration”, Bruckner lamented.

Next on Novena:

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.