A group of German NGOs, led by Open Doors Germany, is calling on Angela Merkel’s federal government, and on State governments, to end the “integration experiment” of mixing Christian and Muslim refugees in refugee centres, saying the situation for Christian and other religious minorities there is “still unbearable”.
“We have underestimated the role of religion,” said Germany’s Home Secretary, Thomas de Maizière, at the ‘Future Conference on Integration and Migration’ in September, looking back at recent events in his country. Contrary to widespread belief in Germany, he said, the importance of religion and faith has not decreased globally.
In September 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that any Syrian who could reach Germany could claim asylum there, partly basing her offer on the Biblical principles of welcoming the stranger and those in need. This offer undermined the 1990 Dublin Convention, which said that refugees must claim asylum in the first EU country they reach. This, Merkel argued, was placing a heavy burden on countries like Malta, Italy and Greece. So she also soon urged other EU members to join a quota system, whereby they would be required to re-settle their fair share of asylum seekers too.
Merkel’s gesture of humanity has resulted in an influx into Germany of perhaps a million people since her comment. In March 2016, the head of Germany’s migration office admitted that up to 400,000 had not applied for asylum. Hundreds of thousands have been living in temporary shelters. And the problems of freedom of religion or belief in countries like Iran or Afghanistan or Pakistan appear to have been transplanted to these crowded shelters.
‘I never expected such a thing to happen in Germany’
Many of the people reaching Europe are refugees or asylum seekers: some have fled to Germany from Islamic countries because of the persecution and discrimination they faced at home. Now those from minority faiths, such as Christians or Yezidis, can often experience the same kind of pressure at these refugee shelters in Germany.
For instance, a recently arrived refugee was confronted with these words written on the wall in his refugee shelter: “The time has come to cut off the heads of all non-believers!”
He described his horror: “I was shocked! In Iran this may happen, but I never expected such a thing to happen in Germany. This has shattered my trust.”
The group of charities – Open Doors Germany, Action on Behalf of Christians and the Needy, the Central Council of Oriental Christians in Germany and the European Mission Society – has published a report, ‘Lack of protection for religious minorities in Germany’, which summarises the findings of a survey carried out amongst asylum-seekers, seeking to give the evidence behind refugees’ accounts of intimidation.
I was shocked! In Iran this may happen, but I never expected such a thing to happen in Germany. This has shattered my trust.
–Iranian Christian refugee
Despite earlier warnings that minority-faith refugees were being beaten and threatened with death, nothing has been done in a systemic way to give them better protection, according to this report’s findings.
In this latest survey of German refugee and asylum centres, interviews with hundreds of refugees were conducted nationwide between May and September. During this period, 512 attacks on Christian refugees and 10 on Yazidi refugees were documented. The 512 Christians reported either incidents of discrimination, or death threats, or violent attacks, experienced because of their faith.
This second survey follows that of 231 reported cases highlighted in a report that the four NGOs published in May. That report said those reported religiously motivated attacks were “only the tip of the iceberg”.
The NGO group first conducted their survey after religiously motivated abuse and violent attacks from Muslim refugees and security officials had been reported anecdotally at the start of 2016.
Facts and figures – lack of protection for religious minorities
Responding to concerns that the first survey reported cases from only Berlin and Brandenburg, this second survey has interviewed additional Christian refugees from all but one German state (as well as the 10 Yazidis).
More than 300 of the refugees came from Iran, 263 from Syria, 63 from Afghanistan, 35 from Iraq, and nine from Eritrea. Twenty-two were from other countries; 47 more did not specify a country of origin.
Combined, the surveys account for 743 affected Christian refugees. Of that number, 617 (83%) reported multiple assaults; 314 (42%) death threats; 416 (56%) violent assaults; and 44 (6%) sexual assaults.
Ninety-one per cent (674) of those who responded to the surveys said assaults were committed by Muslim fellow refugees, 28% (205) accused Muslim guards and 34% (254) blamed “other parties” (many of the attacks were committed by more than one person). If they failed to assist the victims, guards, camp managers and local authorities could be said to have passively contributed to these attacks as well.
The testimonies of the refugees clearly show, the report says, that the assaults are religiously motivated, the perpetrators driven by a value system they have internalised in their home countries and which they consider to be of “divine authority”. The NGOs conclude that such attacks on minority refugees in shelters occur all over Germany.
However, after the first survey was published, German Church commentators noted: “The leaving of Islam and the conversion to Christianity, but also to, for example, the Baha’i faith [is apostasy], still punishable with death in the Islamic world, even though it is often a ‘social’ death rather than a literal one. Since this is true even of many Muslim families living in the West, it would be very unlikely that this problem would not occur in asylum accommodation.”
The NGOs report also surveyed reports of similar incidents from direct contacts across the EU.
A German government office replied to an inquiry by Open Doors Germany: “It is expected of all asylum seekers to live together peacefully, irrespective of their religion… The constitutionally protected freedom of religion, which is a highly valued asset, is every person’s due.”
However, the NGOs warn, refugees who belong to religious minorities often aren’t experiencing this freedom as they lack the opportunity to freely confess their faith in their refugee homes, sometimes suffering violence and threats if they do.
Authorities and camp management establish safety of refugees
However, there is one “beacon” project in Germany, which gives a positive example of “good practice”, reported too.
In one initial reception facility for refugees, 32 Christians were willing to report the assaults and death threats against them, after regional authorities and facility managers established a safe environment. After yet another incident involving the police, the Christian refugees were moved into separate accommodation. Additionally, security staff and interpreters who themselves held a Christian faith were eventually assigned to them.
The NGOs’ report calls on the government and other responsible agencies to ensure the effective protection of Christian refugees and other religious minorities.
They set out the following recommendations for Merkel’s government to safeguard the refugees during the entire process of asylum-seeking and integration:
1. Provision of separate accommodation for Christians and other religious minorities who have already been victims of persecution and discrimination. This should include the possibility of decentralised accommodation. Authorities must refrain from categorically blocking decentralised accommodation, especially if such living quarters are available for affected Christians.
2. Adequately increasing the non-Muslim percentage of the security staff.
3. Provision of periodical training for sensitising co-workers and security staff assigned to refugee shelters to the reasons behind religious conflicts and the protection of religious minorities.
4. Assignment of trusted people who themselves hold Christian convictions, to whom Christians can turn when they’ve been affected by persecution.
Warning of ‘instrumentalising’ the survey
“This new and extended survey provides a solid base for politicians and church leaders to eventually introduce urgently needed safety measures, in order to comply with human rights, and enact accommodation rules and standard procedures from the EU directives on the reception of asylum seekers, including religious minorities”, the report by the NGOs said.
At the same time, they warned against using the findings as political ammunition in Germany’s heated political climate.
“Anyone who misuses the findings of this new survey for political purposes or his/her own prominence, anyone who tries to interpret the survey as a general denunciation of Muslims, is acting, politically and socially, irresponsibly,” said Markus Rode, CEO of Open Doors Germany. “Our [German] history teaches us to never again ignore the oppression and discrimination of minorities in favour of the perpetrators. Therefore we call on the German Chancellor to personally engage in this matter rather than leave it to the federal states.”