Church asylum trial: guilty without punishment

In Sonthofen, a pastor must pay a fine because he saved an Afghan from deportation. A fundamental decision was not made.

Kind of guilty. Or not? Ulrich Gampert and Reza Jafari in the courtroom Photo: dpa

It is already crowded outside the small district court in Sonthofen in the Oberallgau. Two dozen supporters of the Protestant pastor Ulrich Gampert and the Afghan refugee Reza Jafari stand in line at the entrance door, wanting to get in. But inside in the largest meeting room 001, every one of the 30 seats has long been taken; even a room twice as large would have been filled.

Will there be a fundamental decision on the subject of church asylum on this Wednesday afternoon? Can the state prosecute clergymen who take in rejected asylum seekers in church rooms, as Gampert did with Jafari in the neighboring town of Immenstadt? Or will a court, in this case the district court of Sonthofen, decide that church asylum with its centuries-old tradition is legal?

With Gampert, a pastor in Bavaria is now on trial for this reason for the first time. The verdict, which came out after hours of discussions with the parties involved in a locked side room, lacks a more general clarification, however: Gampert, 64, is declared guilty by judge Brigitte Gramatte-Dresse, as is 23-year-old Reza Jafari, to be sure. "The church is barred from giving asylum," she says. However, she adjudicates the case – "aiding and abetting an unauthorized stay" – because of "insignificance." Gampert must now pay a fine of 3,000 euros to the intercultural "Haus International" in Kempten, and Jafari must perform 80 hours of social work.

This is a verdict that leaves no winner and no loser. It always depends on the individual case, the judge said. The pastor and the person seeking protection remain unpunished, they have no criminal record. The public prosecutor’s offices, however, can continue to investigate church asylums and bring charges in the future. In the case of the Afghan, the judge made it clear that a number of things had gone wrong. For example, his files show that he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. However, this turned out to be demonstrably wrong, and a mix-up of names was to blame. In addition, insufficient consideration had been given to how severely traumatized Jafari was.

In recent years, the number of church asylums in Germany has risen sharply. According to data from the federal working group "Asylum in the Church," from 2009 to 2013 there were only cases in the double digits. Then in 2014 there were 430 church asylums, in 2017 there were 1189, and last year there were 1325, with 439 registered by mid-August 2019.

In legal nirvana

Originally, pastor Gamper had received a penalty order for 4000 euros. This would have given him a criminal record and the church asylum would have been classified as illegal. There was a big protest against this in the Allgau, hundreds of clergy and supporters held a silent march in Kempten in the summer. Gampert appealed against the penalty order, which is why the trial has come about. Judge Gramatte-Dresse laments the legal situation: "We are in a legal nirvana."

There is an agreement between the Federal Office for Migration (Bamf) and the churches that cases of church asylum will be thoroughly reviewed once again. For this, the asylum granters are to submit detailed information about the respective cases. In fact, according to the Bamf, special hardship was still found in 13 percent of cases last year. At the same time, the number of church asylum cases recognized by the Bamf is steadily declining, while the pressure on congregations is increasing: In mid-2019, the rate of church asylum cases in which the Federal Office recognized special hardship cases and the asylum procedure was taken over in Germany was only 1.4 percent.

The Afghan Reza Jafari had sent a petition to the Bavarian state parliament. With success: at present he may not be deported. He is currently completing an apprenticeship and is considered to be well integrated. He has been engaged to a German for two years, they want to marry, but for that he still needs papers from Afghanistan, which are difficult to obtain.

Ulrich Gampert is moderately relieved after the trial. He and his wife have now been through their third church asylum. These are always "very exhausting" for everyone involved. Each case is thoroughly examined in advance by the parish. If there is a danger to life, he cannot refuse. Everyone is now hugging each other outside the hall. Pastor Gampert still has the wish, he says, "that church asylums are basically not pursued".

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