The Court of Justice for the European Union has decided that those unable to openly practice their religion have the right to seek asylum. The decision is likely to affect German asylum policies.
Not every interference with free religious practice constitutes persecution, the judges in Luxembourg ruled. The most decisive factor for the granting of asylum is the seriousness of the consequences for those attempting to practice their religion, the court concluded.
Nine years for decision
Two Pakistanis fled from their homeland in 2003 and 2004, after being persecuted for practicing their Ahmadiyya Muslim faith, a religious reform movement. Members of the Ahmadiyya community, or Ahmadis, practice a modified version of Islam. The Sunni branch of Islam, to which the majority of Pakistanis belong, refuses to recognize Ahmadis as Muslims at all, while the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1974 officially denied the Ahmadiyya faith status as a form of Islam.
The two Pakistanis applied for asylum in Germany on the grounds of religious persecution, as they were not allowed to profess their beliefs and pray publicly. One claimed he had been beaten and stoned while praying, and the other said he faced death threats. The German agency responsible for migration and refugees failed to see this as sufficient reason for asylum, and rejected the men’s petition.
In an appeal of one of the men’s cases, a Saxony administrative appeals tribunal determined this did indeed amount to religious persecution, and that the applicant had the right to asylum in Germany. The case was referred to the European Court of Justice, which issued its final decision Wednesday.
The European court in its decision scrapped the argument that adherents of forbidden religions, or religious orientations deviating from the norm, could avoid state persecution by simply retreating to practice their religion in private.
The Court of Justice of the European Union defined religion broadly in its decision, including both private and public practice, and cited the importance of religious identity in assessing the risk to which someone may be exposed. And as long as the risk of persecution has been established, this suffices for asylum seekers, the court decided.
Bernd Mesovic of Pro Asyl welcomed the decision
German human rights organization Pro Asyl, which represented the asylum seekers, described the decision of the first German court as promoting the concept of practicing religion only at home. “As long as it was not obvious that you were an Ahmadi, nothing would happen to you,” said the group’s deputy director, Bernd Mesovic, in explaining the judge’s reasoning.
Pro Asyl, however, promoted the view that believers must also have the ability to profess their faith in public. Mesovic told DW that “attestation is a part of belief.” When believers are threatened with repression that goes beyond discrimination, “that constitutes religious persecution,” Pro Asyl believes.
The European Court of Justice stated that religious persecution occurs when basic human rights are violated – including interference with religious practice, regardless of whether it is in public or private.
Dawood Majoka, a spokesperson for the Ahmadi religious order in Germany, said that in Pakistan, punishment is known to be draconian. Since Ahmadis were declared to be non-Muslim, there’s been “a constant persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan,” Majoka said.
In Pakistan, the dominant Sunni branch of Islam rejects Ahmadis as non-Muslim “blasphemers.” If an Ahmadi utters a greeting or confession of faith, Majoka said, that could suffice for the death penalty. Until now, this has not been carried through – but even today, Ahmadis sentenced to death languish in prison, Majoka said. He added that after years on death row, “they still don’t know when their fate will be decided.”