Democracy & Justice

The Church Stands Up for Refugee Rights

"Love thy neighbor as thyself" – the story of the Good Samaritan who helps a suffering traveller inspires us to show solidarity towards strangers. The Church has a tradition of providing shelter to those in need. Now, this tradition makes it a target.

by Jascha Galaski

Church asylum is a centuries-old tradition. There is, however, no law that gives churches the authority to provide sanctuary to asylum seekers. Nevertheless, authorities have usually granted parishes permission to shelter migrants, albeit sometimes grudgingly.

Church asylum is often the last hope for migrants whose asylum application was rejected by the state. Many parishes open their doors to prevent imminent expulsion. Asylum seekers can live for several weeks and sometimes months in the congregation’s premises, protecting them temporarily from the police and allowing them to resubmit their cases to the authorities for reconsideration without fear of arrest.

Having the opportunity to challenge the court's decision can be crucial. In Germany, around 40 per cent of rejected asylum seekers successfully appeal in court, overturning decisions intended to deny them asylum.

Important actor in refugee aid

Across Europe, the Church has played an important role in supporting and sheltering refugees. In Germany, organizations related to the Church have provided hundreds of millions of euros for refugee aid, mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers and helped in the accommodation of tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers.

Some parishes have challenged government intentions of facilitating deportations. In The Hague, a small church held a non-stop service to prevent authorities from deporting an Armenian family who had been living in the Netherlands for nine years. After 96 days, the family was granted asylum.

In Poland and Italy, where over three-quarters of adults identify as Catholic (87 per cent and 78 per cent respectively), entire communities have contested the anti-immigrant positions of their political leaders, declaring that they would support anyone who offers shelter to refugees.

Following the “Salvini decree” – a callous bill passed at the end of last year, which abolished humanitarian protection and led to the expulsion of hundreds from reception centers, forcing them into homelessness – Italian priests announced their readiness to “open the church doors of every single parish.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly called Europe to show more solidarity with migrants. This has now made him a central target of the far right. The former campaign manager of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, who plans to build a ‘gladiator school’ in an ancient monastery to train an army of populists, has branded the supreme pontiff “the enemy” for his stance on migration.

Church under attack

The pope is not the only Christ follower who has been attacked for advocating for the rights of migrants. A series of priests and parishes have been accused of showing too much compassion for refugees and asylum seekers.

Zoltán Németh, a Hungarian Catholic priest who had provided housing to asylum seekers, was sharply criticized and transferred to another parish. It is still not clear whether the transfer was prompted by the state or whether the decision was made within the church.

Nicknamed the guardian angel of migrants, Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Price in 2015, was accused of people smuggling by Italian authorities. His crime: forwarding distress calls to the Italian Coast Guard and several NGOs engaged in search and rescue operations.

Pastor Norbert Valley was charged with “facilitation of irregular stay” for offering shelter to a man from Togo whose asylum application had been rejected. “As a Christian, the principle of loving my neighbor leads my way of life,” the pastor said.

The Golden Rule that one should treat others as oneself would wish to be treated, a maxim found in all of the world’s major religions, is what drives Zoltán Németh, Mussie Zerai, Norbert Valley and countless other Good Samaritans, worshippers or not, to stand up for the rights of migrants. If they are branded as the villains, then something is not right.

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