The bishops of the German state of Bavaria are standing behind an abbess who is being prosecuted for sheltering asylum seekers.
– Support for Mother Mechthild, the religious facing a “severe prison sentence” for “facilitating illegal residence”
The Freising Bishops’ Conference – which brings together the bishops and archbishops of the dioceses of Augsburg, Bamberg, Eichstätt, Munich and Freising, Passau, Regensburg, Würzburg and Speyer, in Germany’s south-east – “stands behind Mother Mechthild, abbess of the Maria Frieden Abbey in Kirchschletten, who granted church asylum to several women in special need and against whom several criminal proceedings were subsequently initiated”, the Conference stated in a press release October 1 after a plenary assembly in Munich.
Mother Mechthild Thürmer, 62, is being prosecuted by a Bamberg court for the crime of “facilitating illegal residence” because in 2018 she refused to allow authorities to deport an Eritrean asylum seeker she was protecting in her convent.
Because the abbess refused to pay the 2,500 euro fine she was initially slapped with for the alleged crime, the court is now threatening the religious with a “severe prison sentence”.
But to justify her actions, Mother Mechthild – who has since taken into her abbey another Kurdish asylum seeker – has appealed to the long-standing tradition of “Church asylum”.
Though the practice is not recognised by German authorities, the Catholic, Protestant and Free Churches in the country situate Church asylum in the 2,000-year-old history of unconditional Christian hospitality.
The Churches argue that it is their mandate to shelter refugees in religious houses and parishes and thereby protect them from deportation. Particularly if there has been some perceived irregularity or unfairness in the processing of their asylum claim, or if there is reasonable doubt concerning their safe return to their countries of origin.
– Church asylum more necessary than ever after Moria fires
On the case of Mother Mechthild in particular, the Bavarian bishops argued that the nun “has kept to all the agreements” between religious and State authorities on Church asylum. “The bishops see no reason for a conviction”, they pleaded.
More generally, the Bavarian bishops “expressly emphasise[d]” that they “stand behind” the whole tradition and concept of Church asylum, especially in the context of the “particular humanitarian hardships within the framework of the European asylum system which were only just brought to our attention in Moria”, the refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos that went up in flames on the night of September 8-9.
“Church asylum does not disavow the rule of law, but in individual cases helps people in extreme emergency situations”, the Bavarian bishops insisted.
The prelates criticised a 2018 German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) decision to extend from 6 to 18 months the deadline for the transfer of asylum seekers in Church asylum to the EU Member State responsible for the processing of their asylum claim, from which they face an increased risk of deportation to their countries of origin.
The Bavarian bishops called on the BAMF to revoke that “unilateral tightening” of conditions for seeking asylum, which they recall “did not stand up before the Federal Administrative Court” in a recent decision.
“Every [instance of] Church asylum is always preceded by careful consideration, counselling and questioning of conscience”, the prelates insisted.
According to Bettina Nickel, lawyer and deputy head of the Catholic liaison office in Bavaria, there are currently as many as thirty cases of Church asylum in Catholic institutions in the south-eastern German state, and about half as many in Protestant institutions.
In January this year, German immigration authorities forcefully removed an Afghan man from Church asylum and transferred him to Denmark, in what was the first forceful intervention by the State in a sanctuary in four years.
The rate of acceptance of Church asylum cases in Germany has also been plummeting, down from 80% in 2016 to 1.6% in August 2019.