Some German churches provide temporary shelter for rejected asylum seekers. However, only special cases are eligible and the practice of church asylum is a controversial issue from a legal perspective.
The Christian faith is an important pillar in modern German society and there are two main branches of the church in Germany: Catholicism and Protestantism. Every town and city has churches in every neighborhood. An important part of the Christian faith is to help the needy, and German churches have answered the call many times in the past, as well as during the current influx of migrants and refugees.
Birgit Neufert of "Asyl in der Kirche," which is part of the federal ecumenical work group, or as it is called in German, "Ökumenische Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft" (BAG), defined church asylum as "a practice to support, counsel and give shelter to refugees who are threatened with deportation to inhumane living conditions, torture or even death. This practice can be located at the interface of benevolence and politics."
Current status quo
As of February 19, there were 422 active church asylums in Germany, hosting 627 people, according to the BAG. In order to accommodate the influx of asylum seekers, there were 414 newly asylum shelters were established by churches in 2016. At least 1,139 people were protected by church asylum in Germany that year. Most of those who received assistance were from Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan.
It is not as simple as showing up to a church and staying wherever they have available space. Those who seek church asylum must work with the church while staying there. Some churches may request that asylum seekers study the Bible and even convert to Christianity, if they do not already belong to the Christian church.
Controversy, legal vacuum
A Washington Post article described a recent case where some local church members in Germany did not believe that the asylum seekers really were Christians and were trying to find an easy way into the country. In recent years, some churches, especially independent churches, have also been under scrutiny for performing large-scale baptisms of refugees.
Neufert stated that there is no official right to church asylum. From a judicial standpoint, church asylum is considered a breach of the rule of law and an erosion of the power of the state. Critics say that the church is acting outside of the law by offering rejected asylum seekers a place to stay. Former interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, repeatedly criticized the practice.
However, since 2015, there has been an agreement between the church and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) that the state will tolerate church asylum in special severe cases and will not interfere while the notice of deportation is reassessed. In return, the church guarantees that it will not hide an asylum seeker, even in case of a negative decision, and will inform authorities about every single case.
However, under German law deportations can be enforced, even if there are objections. The Dublin Regulation requires asylum seekers to process their papers in the European country that they first entered. Thousands of people have been deported from Germany and sent to the country where they first entered Europe.
Different kind of asylums
Church go about offering asylum in different ways. "Offene" (open) churches are openly accepting of asylum seekers and this is reflected in an open door policy towards the media and public. These churches ask for assistance from the public to help the asylum seekers who are hosted by the church. They also inform the state that they are looking after asylum seekers.
"Still" (quiet) churches are not public about accepting asylum seekers. However, these churches do inform the state that they are taking in asylum seekers.
Elsewhere in Europe
There are similar programs in other European countries, for example the Netherlands. The BBC noted there were several Iranian refugees who turned to Christianity in order start a new life in Europe. Iranian Muslims who convert to Christianity may be severely punished in Iran, including receiving the death penalty.
Italian churches have also taken in asylum seekers over the course of the refugee crisis. The Asylum Information Center said there were nearly 5,000 asylum seekers refugees in parishes and with families connected to churches in Italy as of June 1, 2016.