German Churches Buck State on Asylum Issue

Article excerpt

BERLIN -- On a sunny Sunday morning, the sound of organ music stirs Jose G. from his room in the Paul Gerhardt Parish, where the 19-year-old Angolan refugee has lived for the past three months. He attracts little notice as he joins worshipers from the affluent Berlin suburb, choosing a seat in the back row at the church.

"The parish accepts Jose as our guest," says Protestant pastor Dieter Clausert, who has offered the spare room to refugees for the past 10 years. "Even if his application for political asylum is rejected, he will have a safe place here until something else can be worked out."

The Paul Gerhardt Parish is one of more than 200 Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany that shelter foreign refugees, even when that protection violates the law. Although the German churches, particularly the Protestant, have a long tradition of providing sanctuary for persecuted persons, the new, more restrictive German immigration policy has brought "church asylum" into the spotlight and the involved parishes into direct conflict with the state.

The church initiatives are in response to Germany's recently amended constitutional right to political asylum, formerly the most liberal in Europe. Until last year, refugees had simply to make it to the German border and ask for an application for asylum in order to enter the country and receive housing and pocket money until their case came up before a court, often years later. Even if the applicant failed to qualify for political asylum, he or she was usually given permission to stay after the years of waiting. Under the former laws, Germany accepted more foreign nationals annually than any other European country.

Even human rights groups admit that a change in immigration policy was necessary, but they object to watering down the right to asylum. After a fierce debate, lawmakers voted to tighten requirements for political asylum. Since the amendment, the number of foreign nationals admitted into Germany has sunk by more than half. Trial procedure was streamlined and deportations increased dramatically.

Critics argue the new policy is designed to limit the number of foreign nationals entering Germany, not to give political asylum to those who deserve it. "On paper the right to political asylum still exists," said Ellen Wagner of the organization Asylum in the Church, "but it's become so difficult to get that now, it's more of a privilege than a guaranteed right."

Christian groups such as Asylum in the Church and Pax Christi and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International claim persecuted people and refugees from war zones are being turned back to face life-threatening situations in their homelands.

Young men from Angola, deserters from the Serbian army and Kurds from Turkey, for example, rarely qualify for asylum under the new laws. Should the courts rule against them, they are incarcerated and quickly deported.

In Berlin, a coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Christian Democrats has demanded an immediate stop to the deportation of Angolans, who are often suspected by their government of sympathizing with the rebel Unita army. …