27 August 2020, The Tablet

Abbess ready to go to jail for helping asylum seekers

Abbess ready to go to jail for helping asylum seekers

Refugees including one from Eritrea, in a project in Bavaria. (file pic, Sep 2019)
Daniel Karmann/DPA/PA Images

A German abbess who has been threatened with prison because she helped an Eritrean asylum seeker says she would accept a jail sentence.

Abbess Mechthild Thürmer, who has been threatened with a “considerable term in prison” because she refused to hand over to the authorities an Eritrean asylum seeker sheltering in her Abbey in 2018, and a Kurdish asylum seeker taking refuge with her now, says she is ready to go to jail rather than hand over the Kurdish woman.

When the 62-year-old Abbess of the Benedictine Abbey of Maria Frieden in Kirchschletten, Bavaria, refused to pay the 2500 euro (2238 GBP) fine for “facilitating illegal residence” because she had prevented the deportation of the Eritrean woman by granting “so-called church asylum”, the Bamberg court “strongly urged” her, if she was to avoid a “severe prison sentence”, at least to release the Kurdish asylum seeker she is currently protecting. If she did so, the court told her, it would consider suspending her sentence.

The Abbess’s action is in line with the programme of the German Ecumenical Committee on Church Asylum. This is a grouping of Catholic, Protestant and Free Church parishes who have agreed to offer asylum to refugees they consider have been unfairly treated by the authorities.

The committee affirms the so-called “Charter of Groningen” which claims: “Increasingly the refugee concept and the Geneva Refugee Conventions of 1951 and 1967 are being interpreted in a restrictive way [by European governments].”

“Parishes offering asylum to refugees feel bound by their Christian faith to protect people from deportation from the territory, if there is reasonable doubt concerning a safe return. These parishes place themselves between refugees and the authorities in order to bring about a re-examination of cases and to prevent deportation,” the committee’s website states. 

Abbess Thürmer found the “deal” the court had proposed to her before any public hearing had taken place “alienating”, she told KNA. She would not stop giving church asylum to the Kurdish asylum seeker she is currently protecting and who is due to be deported to Romania. First, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees had to agree to open a legal process through which the woman could make her asylum claim.

This was a matter of conscience as far as Abbess Thürmer  was concerned and she was ready to go to jail rather than hand the woman over to the authorities in the present circumstances.

“I couldn’t be proud of it [the jail sentence]. I would just have to accept it”, she told the Bistumspresse. “But I’d have a clear conscience because I had done what I consider right”. 

“I cannot simply send away a person who is still with us and who needs protection”, she said. Abandoning the Kurdish woman would go against deeply ingrained convictions on her part. 

The abbess deplored the way the “ancient tradition” of church asylum was not given its due in the way asylum claims were handled today. “Church asylum is a tradition that has existed since ancient times”, she emphasised. “In each case it concerns a human being who has no future in his or her home country and who has suffered a great deal. That one should not be allowed to help such a person seems pure madness to me”. 

She hoped that her case might contribute to greater acceptance of the practice of church asylum, Thürmer said. 

In her view, the German asylum system had “inhuman” aspects. “People are fetched out of their beds at 3 a.m. in order to be deported. I really fail to understand that. These people’s fate deeply, deeply worries me”.


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