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More Than 500 Refugees, Some of Them Muslim, Are Being Sheltered at German Churches

Pastor Gottfried Martens lights a candle during a service to baptize people from Iran, in the Trinity Church in Berlin, Aug. 30, 2015. Credit: Markus Schreiber/AP

Mehdi Gohari, a father of two from Afghanistan, and Niloofar Sani, a female pop singer from Iran, may come from different places and have different stories. 

But they have one thing in common. They are both refugees and they were, at one point in their lives, given sanctuary by the German church system. 

Right now in Germany, a total of 551 refugees are being sheltered in 351 churches across the country, the Washington Post reports, citing statistics from a German safe house network called Asyl in der Kirche. 

As the country ramps up deportations of asylum seekers, churches — perhaps unexpectedly — have become a sanctuary for Muslim families fleeing persecution in their homelands of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, as well as human rights abuses in other European countries. 

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The practice of German churches sheltering refugees goes back to 1983, according to the Post — long before the migration crisis that saw an estimated 1.1 million refugees come to Germany in 2015. 

That year, a church in Berlin protected a Palestinian family from being deported to Lebanon, which was embroiled in a civil war at the time. Although there are no laws preventing police from entering churches, police didn’t deport the family. 

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“The law doesn’t say that police can’t enter the church. But they don’t do it. It’s something sacred,” Martina Domke, head of migration at the Cologne office of Diakonie, a social-welfare organization, told the Post. 

Read More: The Day After the Mosque Burns

The policy that emerged from this act of kindness more than 30 years ago became known as “church asylum.” According to the Post, three in four refugees who seek church asylum are protected from deportation. 

The number of asylum seekers finding refuge in the church also seems to be on the rise. In 2015, the German Ecumenical Committee on Church Asylum estimated that 222 churches were sheltering 411 refugees. Now, the number is estimated to be at 551 at more than 350 churches.  

"What we are doing is illegal, and the Migration and Refugee Ministry has the right to arrest us," one pastor in Cologne told Al Jazeera. “Police in Cologne recognise Church Asylum and leave our people in peace."

Refugees who seek asylum in churches are often threatened to be sent not to their home countries, but to other host countries in Europe with less-than-stellar human rights records, such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Romania, and Slovakia, according to Dieter Müller, who works at Germany’s Jesuit Refugee Service

These asylum cases are often referred to as “Dublin cases,” in reference to the Dublin Regulation, which says refugees can be sent back to the European country they first set foot in by other countries in Europe. 

Read More: Meet the German Brass Band Showing That Refugees Are Welcome

A side effect of the country’s unspoken “church asylum” policy has been an increase in conversions of Muslim refugees to Christianity, according to DW. 

One Lutheran church in Berlin reported that its congregation ballooned from several hundred members to 1,300 after Germany began to accept more refugees in 2015. 

Church representatives have said that the intention of harboring refugees is not conversion, and point to the fact that Germany’s two main churches — the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church, which includes Lutherans and Protestants — are established as public “corporations” that receive government money (called a “church tax”) for social-welfare projects, according to the Post. 

Other religions, like Islam, do not benefit from this status. 

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“We are not doing mission work among Muslims,” Gottfried Martens, a pastor at a Lutheran Church in Berlin, which is currently housing 12 refugees, told the Post. “But people who come here are fed up with Iran and Afghanistan, and looking for an alternative.”

For the refugees receiving shelter, like Mehdi Gohari and his family, this aid meant the difference between life and death. 

“I want to thank the church,” Gohari told the Telegraph in 2015. “They didn’t have to help us, but they did. Perhaps they think they helped a family. But I tell you, they saved the lives of four people – five if you include my wife’s unborn child.”