A German abbess who is being prosecuted for sheltering asylum seekers has won the Göttingen Peace Prize.

– Religious wins award alongside rescuers of refugees in Mediterranean

Mother Mechthild Thürmer, the abbess of the Maria Frieden Benedictine Abbey in Kirchschletten, Bavaria, is among the recipients of the 2021 Göttingen Peace Prize, organisers of the award announced November 22.

Also to be collecting their accolades at the prize ceremony scheduled for March 6 2021 will be representatives of the Seebrücke movement – for that group’s commitment to rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean and for demanding their resettlement in Europe – and mayor of Marburg Thomas Spies, for his support of Seebrücke and for his campaigns against the criminalisation of sea rescue.

The Göttingen Peace Prize – which was founded in 1999 through a bequest from science journalist Roland Röhl – is awarded annually to individuals or groups for outstanding contributions to the cause of peace through research or practical commitment.

– “For me the most important thing has always been that they should feel: ‘We sympathise with you'”

Of the three Göttingen Peace Prize winners for 2021, perhaps none captures the imagination as much as Mother Mechthild, who is facing ongoing criminal proceedings on charges of “aiding and abetting an unauthorised stay” because she granted sanctuary to women in dire need.

Before news of her award was announced, the nun spoke to Infomigrants to explain the deep convictions that she holds that have brought her before the courts.

Of the asylum seekers she has taken into her abbey, Mother Mechthild explained that “for me the most important thing has always been that they should feel: ‘We sympathise with you, we want to help you, you can trust us, we will take care of you, you will have the opportunity here to start afresh'”.

– “There’s a huge difference between what you are taught at school about rights and when you’re actually facing someone”

The case against the religious rests on conflicting understandings of a pecularity of the German immigration system known as “church asylum”, by which Christian institutions can offer refuge to asylum seekers threatened with deportation.

But Mother Mechthild was adamant with Infomigrants that church asylum “is legal”, despite what prosecutors are sustaining in her particular case.

The nun said opening the doors of her convent to refugees is legitimate “because I’m doing what has been discussed and agreed upon between the State and the Church: that they have to be checked, that we can only accept hardship cases and that they have to be reported on the day they arrive with BAMF [the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees], the Catholic Office of Bavaria, the Catholic Bishops Conference and the foreigners’ office, otherwise they would be considered fugitives”.

The Benedictine argued that church asylum exists “to allow the situation of the individual to be re-examined” before carrying out an order of deportation – “to discuss it again in an interview, to explain once again why they are seeking asylum in Germany, why they can’t live in their country”.

“Of course, it’s difficult for these people to express themselves. And in my opinion, the hardest thing is for them to talk about their feelings and their psychological state, when they are so badly hurt” by war, persecution, hunger or a multitude of other causes which might have pushed them to flee their homes, the religious lamented.

“There’s a huge difference between what you are taught at school about human rights or women’s rights and when I am actually facing a woman, looking into her eyes and seeing these scars or this fear and anxiety and desperation. Then I have no choice, I have to help, I have to help, as much as I can”, Mother Mechthild justified herself.

More on Novena on Mother Mechthild Thürmer:

Bavarian bishops stand behind abbess prosecuted for sheltering asylum seekers

German abbess prosecuted for sheltering refugees says she would accept jail term with a “clear conscience”

Vatican cardinal backs German abbess prosecuted for sheltering refugees: “God bless her!”

German abbess charged with “aiding and abetting illegal residents”: “To give concrete help to a person in need can’t be a crime”

More on the Church’s concern for asylum seekers


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