Europe’s sanctuary movement: Why churches enter immigration debate

Why We Wrote This

Congregations in Europe have taken dramatic steps to shield migrants. Are the churches right – are they taking a vital humanitarian stand – or are they going too far?

COURTESY OF DIETLIND JOCHIMS
A young Somali who fled strife in his homeland sits in a church in Hamburg, Germany, where he lived while avoiding deportation by the state in 2017.

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From the Netherlands to Germany to Italy, churches have opened their doors to asylum-seekers, often in defiance of their governments, as countries have hardened their policies toward the influx of refugees and migrants.

One year ago there were 374 church asylum cases across Germany, sheltering 543 people. Today, the number has jumped to 532 church asylum cases offering protection to 855 people, including 190 children.

In The Hague, Netherlands, Bethel church drew worldwide attention when it kept a service going nonstop for 96 days to protect a family from being deported – taking advantage of a centuries-old law under which Dutch authorities can’t enter a church while a service is underway. The sanctuary crusade started with three local pastors, but drew nearly 1,000 ministers and 12,000 attendees from around the world. Ultimately, the government agreed to reconsider not only the family’s case, but hundreds of others. In late March, the family was granted a Dutch residency permit.

This growing demand for sanctuary – and churches’ efforts to meet it – is riling conservative politicians who argue that immigrants are breaking down the Christian foundational fabric of their countries. Even less hard-line immigration opponents argue church officials are putting themselves above the law of a democratic state and subordinating it to an unelected moral authority.

The Bethel congregation was pleased with the outcome but alarmed by the need for the marathon church service. “This was the first time in history that we had to organize a continuous church service,” says church leader Theo Hettema. “Before, the police and the government just respected the church.”

On the outskirts of one of Germany’s wealthiest cities, inside a tangle of Brutalist-era high-rises, several 20-something housemates sit around a coffee table filled with their favorite snacks, telling war stories. They have traveled from Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Hungary to Austria to Germany to Denmark to Sweden, and then back to Germany.

“Like tourists,” says Taara, a young mother with a ready laugh, as she kneads her newborn’s feet. 

Except they are not tourists. She and her husband Zemar have slept in the woods, gone hungry for days, been tear-gassed in refugee camps where security officials “used the stuff like water,” and, tightly holding hands, fought their way onto trains at stations that felt more like “Hunger Games” sets than transit points. They have fled the Taliban and the prospect of death, and left those they love in search of safety and asylum in Europe. 

Now, they are living in a safe house.

The migrants (whose names have been changed to protect their identities) have received sanctuary from a German church and, for the past year, they have been living together with another family on church grounds. It is a comfortable space with macramé wall hangings, modest pine furniture, donated baby toys, and colorful homemade construction paper chains from a recent birthday celebration. 

But there is potential danger beyond these walls, which is evident in the rules tacked up beside a schedule for German language lessons: Keep the address secret. No guests. No barbecuing. And if you step outside, it is at your own risk.

The group is being protected as part of a growing sanctuary movement taking root across parts of Europe aimed at preventing migrants from being deported back to war-wracked nations. From the Netherlands to Germany to Italy, churches have opened their doors to asylum-seekers, often in defiance of their governments, as countries have hardened their policies toward the influx of refugees and migrants. 

The movement has been the most pronounced in Germany, which stands at the nexus of the refugee crisis in Europe. One year ago there were 374 active church asylum cases across Germany, sheltering 543 people. Today, the number has jumped to 532 church asylum cases offering protection to some 855 people, including 190 children.

MAARTEN BOERSEMA, BETHEL CHURCH/AP
Members of the Tamrazyan family – Warduhi (second from l.), Seyran (c.), and Hayarpi (second from r.) – join in prayer in the Bethel church in The Hague, Netherlands, which sheltered them to prevent their deportation.

Requests for asylum have increased dramatically in Germany, thanks to a backlog of cases in the courts that began in 2015, when, in the midst of the Syrian war, Europe received the largest influx of refugees since World War II.

The efforts to shield asylum-seekers from government deportation mirrors the American church sanctuary movement that began in the 1980s as refugees fled brutal dictatorships in Latin America. Today, the movements draw strength from one another: An American church in Columbus, Ohio, for example, recently sent its pastor to the Netherlands to keep a church service going and protect a family from deportation. 

Yet while the challenge in the U.S. can be getting word out to refugee communities that churches can protect them, American pastors say, their German counterparts face a different problem: finding enough churches with the space to house all the denied asylum-seekers. The demand for sanctuary spaces in Germany outstrips supply by roughly 20 times, estimates Pastor Dietlind Jochims, commissioner for migration, asylum, and human rights for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northern Germany.

This growing demand – and church efforts to meet it – is riling conservative politicians who argue that immigrants are breaking down the Christian foundational fabric of their countries and, in flouting immigration laws, potentially bringing crime and terror with them. 

“Islam doesn’t belong in Germany,” the country’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said last year, even as statistics showed that violent crime nationwide had fallen 2.4%. Germany should create a “master plan,” he said, to step up the search for and deportation of criminals among asylum-seekers in order to “protect the country’s liberal values.”

Even less hard-line immigration opponents in the government are wary of churches offering hundreds of people sanctuary. They argue church officials are putting themselves above the law of a democratic state and, in the words of one German state governor, subordinating it to an unelected moral authority.

Church officials push back against this characterization. “It’s not about myself or any pastor or church being above the law of a democratic state,” says Ms. Jochims. “Rather, I think a democratic state is exactly one that lets itself be questioned. We aren’t doing any more or any less than coming to the government and asking them to please take a second look – because we think there might be a violation of human rights here.” 

Are the churches right – are they taking a vital humanitarian stand – or are they going too far?

The tension between church and state has spurred congregations to take dramatic steps to shield migrants. In The Hague, Netherlands, Bethel church recently drew worldwide attention when it kept a service going nonstop for 96 days. It was taking advantage of a centuries-old law under which Dutch authorities can’t enter a church while a service is underway.

The sanctuary crusade started with three local pastors, but gradually drew nearly 1,000 ministers and 12,000 attendees from around the world. They supported the round-the-clock service to help protect the Tamrazyan family from being deported to Armenia where, the church argued, the politically active father faced violence. Ultimately, given all the attention, the government agreed to reconsider not only the family’s case, but hundreds of others. In late March, the Tamrazyans were granted a Dutch residency permit.

PETER DEJONG/AP
Minister Henk ten Voorde leads a service at the Bethel church in The Hague, Netherlands, which for six weeks held a nonstop church service to prevent the deportation of an Armenian family. Dutch authorities won’t enter a church when a service is underway. The family was eventually allowed to stay in the country.

The congregation was pleased with the outcome but alarmed by the need for the marathon church service, which they feel highlighted an unsettling change in government policy. “This was the first time in history that we had to organize a continuous church service,” says Theo Hettema, chairman of the General Council of Protestant Ministers. “Before, the police and the government just respected the church.”

Mr. Hettema recalls taking part in an asylum case in the same church in 1998. Church officials were prepared to keep the service going. “We had some hymn books, volunteers, and a Bible on hand, so we could just hurry and start [a service] if necessary,” he recalls. “But it never was.”

The Tamrazyan family had been living 12 miles north of The Hague, in the small town of Katwijk, where they had been members of a Protestant church for the previous three years. “We knew them well, and what had happened to them in Armenia,” says Pastor Folkert Rinkema. “The family had been in the Netherlands for nine years, and we considered the children Dutch.”

When the family learned of their failed immigration petition and impending deportation, they asked for sanctuary. After some deliberation, the church council granted it. But soon after, “The authorities came to us and said, “We will come into the church and take them out – that’s an order,” Mr. Rinkema says. 

It is well known, he says, that the police tend to arrive around 4 a.m., when a family is sleeping and the police know the family members will be there. So the church devised a plan to start a service during those early hours.

Mr. Rinkema also reached out to colleagues at Bethel. “We are a little church – they could stay in only one room,” he says. “We have no shower, no kitchen.”

At night, after peeking out the door to look for police cars, the family went to the homes of fellow church members, where they showered and ate.

In considering whether to take in the Tamrazyan family, members of the Bethel church council weighed many questions and looked to the Bible for guidance. One Scripture that inspired them says that when you receive a refugee, you receive Christ. “This was very important for us,” Mr. Hettema says. 

But others pointed to a verse that says to obey the government. “We argued, ‘Well, by having church asylum, we do not protest against the government. Rather, church asylum is a means of reminding the government of its job. Its job is to make sure children aren’t hurt. We provide this church asylum to have a better government,’” he says.

They also explored whether there was another way to handle the situation. “Can’t we just have a talk behind the scenes with the government? We decided no. We see government policies becoming intentionally harsher, increasingly influenced by populist parties, to send the message, ‘It’s dangerous here, it’s hard here,’” Mr. Hettema says. 

DOMINIC EBENBICHLER/REUTERS/FILE
A family waits to be registered after crossing the border from Austria in Freilassing, Germany. As Germany has adopted tougher policies toward asylum-seekers, churches have housed some of those about to be deported.

“We looked into each other’s eyes and said, ‘OK, we can manage. Let’s call the family.’”

There have been 52 incidents of people being offered church asylum in the Netherlands in the past decade and, in this case, Bethel did not hide that it was providing sanctuary to the Tamrazyans. Church leaders even coordinated with local police to work through potential parking issues.

They also told the family that if federal authorities entered the church despite the ongoing service, the church would acquiesce. “We did not want to fight the government, but to plead for a discussion, a dialogue, a means of cooperation,” says Mr. Hettema. 

Church leaders mobilized nearly 100 volunteers to welcome participants to the service, clean toilets, buy groceries, and manage media outreach – in a hedge, he admits, against possible state action. Mr. Hettema estimates that in the beginning about 60% of the congregation supported the move, a figure he says rose to roughly 80% during the course of the ongoing service.

After a few weeks, Bethel officials had a meeting with the Dutch Ministry of Justice. “They said, ‘OK, we see that you have this church service. We will not enter the building; we won’t post a policeman outside.’ But they also said, ‘We think it’s rather ridiculous what you are doing, and it will have no impact. We’ll just wait until you can’t manage this anymore.’”

But word of the service spread. Thanks to frequent flyer miles donated by a parishioner, Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio sent its pastor, Joel Miller, to The Hague to take part in the Bethel church service. “There was a natural kindredness in the work in that it was asylum and sanctuary,” he says. Mr. Miller’s own church has offered sanctuary for the past year and a half to a Mexican woman facing deportation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In Hamburg, Germany, Ms. Jochims was scheduled to travel to The Hague to lead a service at Bethel, too, but the family was granted a reprieve – allowing the service to end last January – before she arrived. She decided to go anyway to discuss the movement with Mr. Hettema. 

“He was not one of these activists who does this all the time – the hold-up-your-fists-and-yell type,” Ms. Jochims says. “When we asked him if they had any idea of the outcome of this service when they started, if they had a Plan B, he said, ‘Humanity has no Plan B.’ He was saying stuff like that. He was very impressive.” 

What Ms. Jochims found particularly encouraging was the ultimate change in the government’s position. “It took more than three months but they kept on talking, talking, talking and that led to a solution. The encouraging thing was that there was a willingness to remain in dialogue.” 

In Germany, by contrast, “What frustrates us right now is that there has been a shift in atmosphere,” she adds. “They write us long bureaucratic emails, but there’s no real dialogue anymore, no willingness to find good solutions to the cases we bring to them. So that was a good thing to see – you keep on, you keep on, you keep on.” 

For their part, Taara and Zemar expect to be in sanctuary for roughly a year and a half. Until recently, German law required cases under the Dublin Regulation, the main framework governing asylum applications in Europe, to be settled within six months. If it took longer than that, people could not be deported. Churches, aware of the backlog of asylum cases in German courts, took advantage of this law to help run out the clocks, so to speak, for those seeking sanctuary. 

Aware of this tactic, German lawmakers voted last August to raise the length of time for Dublin cases to be resolved to 18 months. As a result, the time families spend living in churches has been steadily rising.

Peter Dejong/AP
Hayarpi Tamrazyan (r.), a 21-year-old Armenian asylum seeker, gets a hug from spokesperson Florine Kuethe inside the Bethel chapel in The Hague, Netherlands.

The state is moving toward toughening immigration laws in other ways as well. In April, as part of his so-called master plan, Interior Minister Seehofer gained Cabinet backing for an “orderly return bill.” It would hold asylum-seekers awaiting deportation in jails, reduce social welfare grants for asylum-seekers, and potentially prosecute civil servants who warn asylum-seekers of pending deportations. 

Already, authorities have questioned more than 150 church pastors in conservative German states, including Bavaria, and threatened some with jail time. “The police came to me and asked, ‘Who is living here? When did they arrive, and when are they leaving?” says Doris Otminghaus, a protestant pastor in Bavaria, whom colleagues describe as “ringing the church bells against the state.” 

“They told me, ‘This first time we come you will not be punished, but if you do it again, you will go to prison,’” she says, adding that she does not plan to stop.

Churches aren’t the only target of hardening policies. Until recently, health care facilities were considered unofficial safe zones, but when Taara went to a local hospital last year to deliver her baby, she learned this was no longer the case. 

“They asked me for documents and when I said, ‘I don’t have any,’ the nurse said, ‘Maybe we have to call the police.’ It was stressful.”

“Before, I could always tell people, ‘The hospital is safe,’” says Hannah Hosseini, head of the department of migration and asylum for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of East Hamburg. She pauses. “I used to be able to say with confidence, ‘You are safe now. The church will protect you.’ I can’t say that with confidence anymore.” 

Church officials, politicians, and refugees are looking toward European parliamentary elections in May to see if there will be any further shift in immigration policies. If anti-immigrant parties gain enough votes, they could block efforts to reform what critics consider the “huge structural failures” in the Dublin framework. Among other things, it requires immigrants to request asylum in the first European Union country in which they arrive. 

This places an unfair burden, critics say, on southern countries such as Greece and Italy now grappling with packed refugee camps and migrants living on the streets. Bulgaria and Hungary have been criticized for encouraging immigrants to move along north, under threat of imprisonment, rather than registering them for asylum. 

“Dublin can only work well if the reception conditions and asylum procedures are the same, plus or minus, wherever you are,” says Torsten Moritz, director of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe. “This isn’t the case.”

Should Taara, Zemar, or their housemates be detained by police, they could be sent back to Sweden, the first country where they registered with authorities. From there, they could be deported to Afghanistan, still embroiled in war. European countries have different deportation policies. While Germany won’t deport women and children to Afghanistan, for example, other European countries will.

“People coming into the EU are making an educated and, I think, well-informed decision in searching for a place with some infrastructure and some means of receiving them,” says Dr. Moritz. 

COURTESY OF DIETLIND JOCHIMS
"It’s not about myself or any pastor or church being above the law of a democratic state. Rather, I think a democratic state is exactly one that lets itself be questioned," says Pastor Dietlind Jochims, commissioner for migration, asylum, and human rights for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northern Germany.

The influx of asylum-seekers in Germany has prompted some church officials to change their own policies. Ms. Hosseini says that the church used to weigh the relative merits of each case to determine who got the scarce sanctuary spots. 

“I remember, there were five or six men coming via Bulgaria,” where treatment of asylum-seekers has been questioned by EU officials concerned about human rights violations. “One was saying, ‘I was jailed for four weeks,’ another said he was jailed for six weeks, another said he was beaten,” she says.

Now, the church takes a less emotionally exhausting first-come, first-served approach. “If we have a free place, the next person who comes gets it. We don’t want to – and can’t – decide who is more deserving.”

The 20-somethings sitting around the coffee table being protected here feel particularly fortunate. 

“I can imagine telling these stories to our grandchildren when we’re older,” Zemar says. “They won’t believe it. Sometimes we ourselves don’t believe it.” They watch television news clips of refugees on boats and in camps. “We think, ‘How dangerous. How stressful!’ Then we think, ‘Wait, we did this, too. And now we’re here. Thank God.’”

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