A German abbess charged with “aiding and abetting illegal residents” is standing up for herself, saying that “to give concrete help to a person in need can’t be a crime”.

– “I acted out of Christian spirit”

“I acted out of Christian spirit”, 62-year-old Mother Mechthild Thürmer, the abbess of the Benedictine Abbey of Maria Frieden in Kirchschletten (Bavaria), told German Catholic news agency KNA.

Mother Mechthild has been giving shelter to refugees since 2018, when she took in to the convent she has led since 2011 an undocumented Eritrean woman.

The abbess justified her actions in the July 21 edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, arguing not only that the woman she sheltered was pregnant and married to an immigrant with his papers in order but also that “as a Christian, I have a duty to help those in need”.

Nonetheless, the German authorities haven’t taken kindly to Mother Mechthild’s compassion, issuing her with a €2,500 fine for taking in the refugee which the religious refused to pay.

Bavarian state prosecutors are also seeking to take the nun to court, but the date initially scheduled for her trial – this coming July 31 – has now been postponed, because a judge in a Bamberg district court is looking to combine into one cause the now over thirty infractions Mother Mechthild has committed by offering asylum in her abbey to refugees.

– Legal limbo

KNA reported that also under the microscope in Mother Mechthild’s cause is a 2015 Church asylum agreement between the different Christian denominations and the State by which an asylum seeker being offered and accepting protection on Church premises is generally tolerated by the authorities on the condition that the asylum seeker is always locatable.

Though a Freising court found in 2018 that Church asylum is not punishable as long as immigration authorities don’t enforce orders to deport refugees in protection, both Bavarian tribunals and the Federal Court, Germany’s highest legal body, are yet to rule on the issue.

That lack of legal clarity around the Church asylum system has led to a situation of total uncertainty for providers, whom KNA said can sometimes see cases against them dropped, settled with a fine or prosecuted without any warning.

– Nun “speechless that so many people show solidarity”

But the difficult legal limbo for Church asylum providers is nothing compared with that suffered by the 550 asylum seekers – including 125 children – who were in 357 Church asylum locations around Germany in July 2020, according to numbers provided by the Church asylum movement “Asyl in der Kirche”.

As a further show of the faulty legislation regulating Church asylum, many homeless German nationals too have begun claiming religious asylum as “the last resort for the most difficult cases”, according to Potsdam priest Bernhard Fricke.

Mother Mechthild, in the meantime, is remaining defiant in the face of the looming legal action against her, reminding Domradio July 28 that Church asylum has existed since “antiquity” and that, moreover, “there is also an agreement between Church and State”.

Insisting that she has always abided by the letter of that agreement in all the times she has offered asylum since 2018, Mother Mechthild celebrated all the support that has come pouring in for her cause, saying that “I am speechless that so many people show solidarity”.

“It’s a known fact: there are always those who shout out loud when they are against something. Then you think everyone is against it. But it seems to be the case that many people think positively, want to practise humanity, encourage me and say: ‘Hats off’. They support this with prayer and have already sent me money for the work with the refugees”, Mother Mechthild said of the spiritual, emotional and logistical help she has received.

Background on Novena on the German system of Church asylum:

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


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.