A German court has charged a nun €500 for assisting Nigerian women threatened with deportation from Germany. The two women reportedly fled from forced prostitution in Italy. Different groups criticized the court order and called for a decriminalization of church asylum.
Juliana Seelmann is a 38-year-old nun who lives and works in the Franciscan abbey of Oberzell in northern Bavaria. On Wednesday (June 2), she was found guilty of assisting illegal stay and was fined €500 by the district court in the city of Würzburg.
According to a court spokesperson, the nun must pay the money to a charity and faces an additional €600 fine in case she commits any violations during a two-year probation period.
"We live in a democracy, not in a theocracy. It's an open breach of the law that cannot be forgiven," the judge said. Seelmann confessed and stressed that received explicit support for her actions from the bishop of Würzburg.
The nun had granted church asylum to one Nigerian woman each in 2019 and 2020 at her abbey. The women had reportedly fled forced prostitution in Italy and sought refuge in Germany. According to the European Union's Dublin Regulation, the women would have had to leave Germany for Italy, where they had first entered the EU.
One of women, now 23 years old, was sent to forced prostitution by her mother when she was 15, according to the depiction of the cases by the diocese of Würzburg. Her pimp, a woman, first sent her to Libya, then to Italy. From there, she fled to Germany twice and lived in the abbey in late 2019 for two months. She now has a right to stay in Germany.
Whether the other woman, who stayed in the abbey from February to May 2020, can remain in Germany is uncertain. The 34-year-old was also forced into prostitution, the diocese of Würzburg said. Moreover, she had contracted HIV from a client.
The diocese argued that church asylum was justified in both cases because the women had faced extreme emergency situations.
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Germany's "Ökumenische Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Asyl in der Kirche" ("federal ecumenical work group for asylum in the church") called the court order a "fatal signal."
"Helping people in hopeless situations cannot be a crime," the advocacy group said in an online statement and on Twitter. "When a court calls such an action inexcusable, it throws an alarming light on the understanding of humanity and questions of conscience in this country."
The local youth chapter of Germany's Green Party and the refugee council of Würzburg also criticized the decision, expressing their solidarity with Seelmann and calling for the decriminalization of church asylum.
In another, unrelated church asylum case near Würzburg, a court in late April acquitted a monk who had provided refuge to a man born in the Gaza Strip. The court ruled that in this case, church asylum was protected by the freedom of faith and conscience laid out in the German constitution.
In January, Germany's asylum office eased its restrictions on church asylum. The introduced changes pertain to the time limits within which responsibility for an asylum seeker would move to Germany from other EU countries. The obstacles to church asylum had previously been so high that help for hardship cases was made nearly impossible.