30 July 2020, The Tablet

Cardinal voices support for Abbess facing trial for sheltering refugees

Mother Mechthild Thurmer stated that she gave shelter to over 30 asylum seekers in her Abbey due to her religious beliefs.

Cardinal voices support for Abbess facing trial for sheltering refugees

Beds made up for refugees inside the St. Pauli Church in Hamburg, Germany, 8 October 2013

A prominent Cardinal has voiced his support for a Benedictine Abbess facing trial in Germany for sheltering refugees. 

Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Canadian Jesuit who was made a Cardinal in October 2019, said that the German nun was part of "a long tradition of Christians living their faith to the final consequence". He added that he saw no reason why this tradition should be "refuted or broken" in the present day.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, Under-secretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, made the comments in a Tablet webinar on "overcoming indifference to migrants and refugees".

Asked whether Catholics should be willing to take the risk the rick Mother Mechthild Thurmer is taking, Cardinal Czerny responded, "God bless her!".

Mother Mechthild Thurmer, a Benedictine nun, has granted refuge to female asylum-seekers in her monastery, the Abbey of Maria Frieden, located in the town of Kirchschletten, more than 30 times in the past few years. She now stands accused of two counts of “aiding and abetting illegal residents,” and is to stand trial in the Bavarian regional court of Bamberg. 

The case could become a legal landmark, as church asylum has traditionally been exempt in practice from immigration restrictions, with the exception of nominal fines. Thurmer has refused to pay a fine, as she does not interpret her actions as having broken the law. Franz Bethauser, Thurmer’s lawyer, has stated that he hopes the case will clarify the position of religious organisations in such cases. 

Under a 2015 agreement between German Churches and government, authorities will tolerate asylum-seekers being given shelter in religious institutions whilst their applications are being examined, provided they are not hidden. A local court ruled in 2018 that if the state does not actively seek to deport asylum-seekers whose cases have been rejected, Churches cannot be prosecuted for sheltering them. As the political mood in Germany has shifted, however, the federal government has begun to crack down on foreigners who remain in Germany after their application for asylum has been rejected.  Thurmer has been charged with seeking to prevent the deportation of an asylum-seeker in that position.

Thurmer herself has insisted she committed no crime. “I acted out of Christian spirit,” the 62-year-old Benedictine said. “To give concrete help to a person in need can’t be a crime.” Adding that those she offered refuge to had been through significant suffering, the Abbess stated that she was certain Jesus would have offered the asylum seekers, were He in her position. 

The Benedictine Abbess has also insisted on continuing to grant asylum to a Kurdish asylum seeker despite deal offered her by the court

With a view to the considerable prison term she could be sentenced to, the court in Bamberg had “strongly urged” her to at least stop sheltering her present asylum seeker. If she did so, there was a good prospect that her punishment would be suspended, the court said.

Speaking to local media, Abbess Thurmer stated that she had refused the deal: “We are dealing with a human life. This is about young people’s futures”. In this particular case, she could not sacrifice the asylum seeker just because she was involved in a legal battle. “This is not a game of chess”, she pointed out.

She had meanwhile received messages of solidarity and goodwill from all over the world, even from the USA. “I would need two extra secretaries to reply to all of them”, she said. 

Bethauser has stated on behalf of his client that her  “freedom of belief” - something guaranteed in the German constitution - “has more weight than the alleged criminal offense.” Thurmer’s trial, originally scheduled for 31 July, was cancelled earlier this week. The court emphasised that they still intended to put the Abbess on trial in future, however.

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