How clerics are using an ancient privilege to fight the German state on refugees

Holly Young
5 December 2017

How clerics are using an ancient privilege to fight the German state on refugees

Authorities in Bavaria have started to act against the church when it shields people the state wants to deport. But clerics say they are unbending in their determination to resist – and claim the fight is only making them stronger.

In 2015, a hurricane ripped through Doris Otminghaus’ garden. Among the hammock, trampoline and garden furniture, a few tree stumps remain as evidence of the damage left behind.

It is hard to imagine anything so dramatic happening where she lives in Haßfurt, a town in Germany’s southern and conservative state of Bavaria, which Otminghaus describes as “a town with a villagey character”. On a wet Monday morning, aside from a few dawdling teenagers, the streets are practically deserted. On the high street, pensioners lick ice cream sundaes under grey skies in front of one of the few open cafes.

Haßfurt may feel quiet, but it is not cut off: what is happening inside Otminghaus’ house is, she believes, a seismograph for deep political and moral rumblings in Germany today.

An ancient right

Otminghaus, the pastor of the town’s evangelical church, has had an interesting year. Her decision to grant church asylum so far to a total of eleven asylum seekers threatened with deportation has brought her into the eye of a strange and heightening conflict between the church and state in Bavaria. She has both received human rights prizes and become one of a growing number of church figures to be investigated by the prosecution service.

When we meet, she has four people living alongside her family on the ground floor of her house, which sits directly opposite her church. Donation boxes spill across the stairs. In one of the rooms where two guests sleep, one from Afghanistan and the other from Ethiopia, posters of Bayern Munich football club are pinned above immaculately made single beds.

The house is homely and the good atmosphere is tangible: they laugh while she tries to jostle them into having a photo taken. “We are not together all the time,” says Otminghaus. “But there are many points of contact between us.”

According to The German Ecumenical Committee on Church Asylum (BAG) – a network of Protestant, Catholic and Free churches – church asylum today exists as a temporary form of protection for people without a legal residence status, who are at risk of life and limb if they return to their home country. There are currently an estimated 531 people (including 127 children) receiving church asylum across Germany, all of which are noted with the authorities.

“The right to asylum and the right to asylum on sacred ground dates back thousands of years,” explains Otminghaus. “Church asylum has a long history, it is one of the oldest human rights that we know.”



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