Many church parishes are involved in helping refugees. That includes clothes, care and less frequently, temporary protection in the form of church asylum. Germany is trying a new approach to the controversial issue.
The German government and the country's major Christian churches have found a compromise on the touchy issue of church asylum for refugees.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Friday that every single case of a parish offering shelter to refugees in future will not only be handled on a local level, but also be settled with Germany's Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and the church boards.
Both sides appear to be satisfied with the new approach, which is planned for a six month trial period.
Karl Jüsten, head of the German Catholic Bishops Liaison Office, conceded that church asylum is "always a last resort", and the BAMF made it clear it is not calling into question the tradition of church asylum.
Earlier, De Maiziere of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had warned the churches from acting on their own authority and placing themselves above the law under the impression of a rising flood of refugees into the country. Some parishes feel bound by their Christian faith to protect people from deportation if they feel there is reasonable doubt concerning the refugees' safe return.
Parishes seek reexamination of cases
"I was beaten by police, got no water and no food," 16-year-old Ali from Afghanistan says about a refugee camp in Bulgaria, which is why he fled to Germany. But an EU regulation called the Dublin Accord stipulates that asylum has to be sought in the first EU state the refugee reaches.
The German authorities wanted to send Ali back to Bulgaria, but he was too scared to go back. Now, he lives in the Catholic parish hall of St. Joseph in the Bavarian town of Tutzing, which has granted him asylum.
Reverend Peter Brummer says Ali is traumatized. The boy's father was killed in Afghanistan, and he has lost contact with his mother and sister. Volunteers help Brummer take care of him and one other refugee. Meanwhile, the German authorities are demanding that the case be dealt with officially. When a church grants asylum, the authorities are usually told. They could, in theory, come and collect the refugees, but choose not to.
Church asylum abused?
Brummer cannot understand why de Maiziere spoke to German public radio about "abuse of church asylum." In the interview, de Maiziere, said that as a politician he was fundamentally against church asylum. As a Christian, he conceded, one could "occasionally have mercy - but we're only talking about maybe 10 cases per year."
He pointed out that even churches were not above the law, and he cited Sharia, or Islamic law, as "another example" of the rules of state taking precedence over religious views.
Brummer, whose father was one of the founding fathers of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, says that is an "impossible comparison." Following a public uproar, de Maiziere later retracted his comment comparing church asylum to Sharia law.
Brummer said he sees himself as an "upright citizen" who uses church asylum as a last resort in extreme cases precisely because it is the only way to uphold human rights sometimes.
Indeed, church asylum is rarely granted in Germany. According to the ecumenical working group BAG, which helps facilitate church asylum, there are currently about 360 cases across Germany, more than 100 of which involve children.
The majority are Dublin Accord cases. "Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Malta, sometimes Romania and Slovakia" are "tricky" EU countries, says Dieter Müller, from the Jesuit Refugee Service. According to Müller, that means that charities in those countries regularly find that applicants for asylum are not cared for adequately, or that their human rights are being abused.
This mother didn't want to return to Slovenia. She and her daughter were granted church asylum in Bavaria
Germany has recently declared that migrants who first arrived in Greece, for example, will not be sent back there. There have also been several court verdicts to that effect for other countries, but they only applied to certain cases. "It's a lottery," says Müller, who advises parishes like St. Joseph in Tutzing.
Of 173,000 applications for asylum in 2014, church asylum only makes up 0.3 percent of the total, Müller says.
German tradition, especially in Bavaria
It's primarily the CDU and its CSU sister party that have a problem with church asylum. The leader of the CSU in parliament, Volker Kauder, called it "a highly problematic issue" while the Greens, the Social Democrats and even the Left party want to keep it.
In Germany today, church asylum is particularly widespread in Bavaria, which currently counts 162 people under the protection of the church, according to the state's Interior Ministry.
"We don't think it's compatible with our judicial system, but we do not enter church premises without permission from church officials," a ministry spokesman said.
Dieter Müller's home parish of St. Korbinian in Munich granted church asylum to a young family from Afghanistan. The mother did not want to return to Slovenia, where she says she couldn't get adequate food supplies for her 2-year-old daughter. The family stayed in the parish hall for six months, a period after which she is entitled to go through the official asylum process. Those six months may be extended to 18 though, if current plans are implemented.
The BAG organization estimates that so far, at least 70 percent of cases have been allowed to stay in Germany. A spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees told DW that the agency respected the practice. "We don't press charges in church asylum cases, neither against the asylum-seeker nor the representatives of the church," she said.
Determined to help
The Reverend Brummer says he will not be intimidated and warns against criminalizing those who help migrants in Germany. He has been involved in granting church asylum for 20 years and "we've seen everything from canonization to being threatened with murder," he told DW.
When serving in the Bavarian city of Augsburg in 1995, he took in a young Kurdish mother with two children. It was a time when Germany was experiencing racist arson attacks and the government had just tightened asylum laws.
Bavarian politicians and legal authorities put pressure on Brummer, who was even subpoenaed. He had to call the police at night, he recalls, "as racist thugs had threatened to set our parish on fire."
German and international media reported on the case. Amnesty International even started its first ever "urgent action" in Germany. Today, the Kurdish family lives in the Netherlands and Brummer still keeps in touch.
Brummer thinks the presence of migrants is good for Tutzing, one of the richest communities in Germany. Only recently, he was told how well one African applicant for asylum was doing looking after people with dementia. "He is a young man with a lot of respect and a feel for how to care for old people," Brummer said.