A regional leader from Germany's populist AfD party has accused churches of exploiting the refugee crisis to make a profit. Church organizations have hit back, describing the comments as incendiary and baseless.
Petr Bystron, the head of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the southern state of Bavaria, alleged Thursday that German churches were earning "billions of euros per year" from the surge in refugee arrivals in Europe.
"This phony public image of reaching out to refugees is also financing a gigantic charity industry under the organizational roof of the churches," he wrote in an article at Huffington Post on Wednesday.
Germany took in more than 1 million people in 2015 - more than any other European country. Church charities have played a significant role in providing resources such as counseling services and shelters for refugees. But Bystron said these organizations were making money "under the guise" of providing charity.
An AfD spokesman told the German news agency DPA that Bystron's position had not been endorsed by the party's national board.
Church groups reacted angrily to the comments on Thursday, which came as the Catholic Church in Germany celebrated its annual conference gathering in Leipzig. AfD politicians were explicitly excluded from the event.
"We reject the poorly thought-out comments from Mr. Bystron," German Conference of Bishops spokesman Matthias Kopp said. "It is jabbering unsupported by a single fact that does little to contribute to a proper discussion."
Germany has moved to curb migrant arrivals since last year's record influx through a complicated migration deal between the European Union and Turkey. Still, local unease about foreigners has given right-wing, anti-immigrant groups like the AfD a significant boost in support.
'In church's interest'
Singling out the Catholic charity Caritas and the Lutheran Diakonische Werk (Diaconical Mission), Bystron further argued that hefty profits meant it was in churches' interest for Germany to bring in more refugees.
"Church organizations and subsidiaries maximize profits by taking advantage of volunteers' willingness to help for months at a time while writing fat bills to local, state and federal authorities for the construction and operation of refugee housing," he said.
According to Kopp, the Catholic Church spent more than 112 million euros ($136.5 million) on refugee aid in 2015 - a 40-million-euro increase on 2014.
"Anyone who goes off the rails like this is just slapping 200,000 volunteers at church-operated refugee centers in the face," Kopp said.
Berlin Archbishop Heiner Koch called Bystron's statements "shameless," noting that many poor dioceses had extended their already thinly stretched resources to help refugees.
nm/sms (dpa, epd)