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Austria and Germany, restrictions on the KirchenAsyl, sanctuaries offering shelter to asylum-seekers

The police raid on the monastery of the Franciscan Sisters of Langenlois (Krems district, Lower Austria) to apprehend a 22-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, put the spotlight on KirchenAsyl, "the Church asylum" for refugees in a bureaucratic limbo. According to the KirchenAsyl Ecumenical Committee, as of October 28, 2019, there were 441 active sanctuaries with at least 703 people, 155 of whom were children

An operation by the Austrian police, conducted on the night between 8 and 9 December last, caused great indignation and dismay not only in Austria: when the police broke into the monastery of the Franciscan nuns of Langenlois (Krems district, Lower Austria), they burst into the cloistered area and arrested Ziaulrahman Zaland, 22-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, despite the nuns’ vehement protests. He was being hosted by the nuns according to Church asylum system envisaged by the KirchenAsyl, i.e. accommodation offered to asylum seekers whose applications were rejected. Zaland arrived in Langenlois in August 2015 and registered at the Franciscan School of Social Professions in 2017, with the intention of graduating in June 2020. In the case of the Afghan refugee, the Federal President of the Republic of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen, was asked to intervene. The protests resulted in a positive outcome for Zaland, who, having been released, can remain in Austria pending judgment on his deportation, but he must daily sign in at law enforcement headquarters.This case dramatically highlighted the problem of the KirchenAsyl, the Church’s asylum system. Such a rigid approach on the part of law enforcement authorities is in fact not an isolated case, both in Austria and in Germany.Also in Germany, the KirchenAsyl for asylum seekers in difficult situations has been severely attacked by politicians and the administration of the Lander. The parish communities or the religious of a monastery or convent receive asylum seekers at risk of deportation in the so-called “asylum church” or “sanctuary”. There is the full awareness of violating the law, but in the light of a document of the German Bishops’ Conference issued in 2015, the “church asylum” is the “last resort”, namely, a request for attentive caring of the precious good that is the human life of the asylum seeker, through a “non-violent form of civil disobedience.”

In the opinion of Andreas Lob-Hüdepohl, theologian and expert in social ethics, member of the Central Committee of German Catholics,

“The Church Asylum” is an act of emergency relief.

Occasionally refugee asylum applications turned out to have been incorrectly processed”: however, the theologian argues, “The purpose of the Church Asylum is not to grant asylum. This is not possible because the church is not a “state within the state”. Church congregations are not free zones which may or may not grant asylum as they wish. This distinguishes today’s Church Asylum from its historical predecessors. Today, for human rights reasons, the Church is pursuing a pro-asylum campaign, that the State should grant to people who face real danger if they were to be deported – if necessary with the support of Christian faithful involved in church congregations. That is why I prefer to define it “asylum with the church” and not “asylum inside the church.” Most of those who seek Church protection are the so-called Dublin cases, i.e. refugees who would have to be transferred to the first country of entry in the EU to lodge a request for asylum But if the relocation period expires – originally six months – Germany is responsible for the asylum application. This is also the case in Austria. In Germany, in 2015 the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church, together with the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge – the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), signed a cooperation agreement on the most serious humanitarian cases. But as of August 2018 the relocation period can be extended to 18 months if the town councils fail to meet specific requirements: the Länder, in agreement with BAMF, have thus radically restricted regulations initially decided with the Churches. The new situation led to a positive outcome in 2018/2019 for only 2% – compared to approximately 80% in 2016 – of the KirchenAsyl cases authorized to lodge an application in Germany on humanitarian grounds.

According to the KirchenAsyl Ecumenical Committee, as of October 28, 2019, there were 441 active sanctuaries with at least 703 people, 155 of whom were children. 417 asylum seekers accommodated in the sanctuaries are cases linked to the Dublin Agreement.

For Sister Franziscka Bruckner, Superior General of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis Sisters Langenlois convent, “reason should have priority over symbolic politics” and the humanitarian right to reception should be applied first and foremost. As the person in charge of a community that has taken care of the integration of asylum seeker Ziaulrahman Zaland, Sister Bruckner views the intervention of immigration authorities as “a slap in the face to every effort aimed at meaningful integration.”

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