In June, a 41-year-old Afghan asylum-seeker stabbed a five-year-old boy to death in a refugee home in the southern German town of Arnschwang. Apparently, the sound of children playing annoyed him. The police shot him dead.
However, it later emerged that he had avoided deportation because he was a Christian convert, a status that was judged to be a risk to his life if he was sent home.
Local officials responded by ordering checks on whether there were other asylum-seekers claiming to have converted to Christianity. It turns out that there are lots of such cases, and Germany is torn about what to do with them.
At the center of the debate is the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, or BAMF. It has been under fire ever since the start of Germany’s refugee influx in 2015, when the country opened its doors and was subsequently overwhelmed by the arrival of 890,000 migrants that year alone.
“Conversion alone doesn’t as a rule lead to a justified fear of persecution.”
The processing of such numbers has led to delays, and BAMF has made mistakes. Last month, for example, a Palestinian knife attacker killed one person and wounded several others during a knife rampage in Hamburg. It was later found that BAMF had missed a deadline to expel him by one day.
Critics say the ministry is making mistakes because it is under time pressure, and that its errors are leading to thousands of time-consuming appeals. In the first half of 2017, it reached decisions on 400,000 asylum requests – but 47.3 percent of rejected claimants took legal action against the decisions.
Applicants who say they have converted to Christianity present a particular problem. Immigration officers face the difficult task of gauging how they practice their faith and whether the way they do so would put them at risk of persecution in their home country. The decision on whether to grant asylum depends more on information gleaned in interviews than on an applicant’s formal switch to Christianity, which can be confirmed by church documents.
This is a controversial method. According to Volker Beck, a lawmaker for the opposition Green party, BAMF has rejected asylum applications by stating that it was “virtually impossible for a born Muslim who was brought up in the Islamic faith to credibly complete the conversion to Christianity in just a few months based on a profound and personal conviction of faith.”
That, said Mr. Beck, amounted to a judgment that ignored many examples of such conversions. BAMF has also ruled that weekly attendance at Sunday church services does not amount to evidence of religious conviction.
Mr. Beck said he could not understand why the BAMF should consider itself more qualified than a parish priest to judge a person’s inner faith based on a two-hour interview. People who were known to have converted “lived under a sword of Damocles” because they could be punished and convicted at any time, he said, referring in particular to cases of Iranian and Afghan converts.
Germany’s churches back his position. They have pointed out that it takes months of preparation before someone is allowed to be christened. Bertram Meier, the head of pastoral care in the Catholic diocese of Augsburg, Bavaria, said he hadn’t come across a single case in which a christening was used as an excuse to avoid being deported.
According to Mr. Beck, BAMF has been sloppy and taken “evidently unlawful decisions” for months, putting refugees at risk of being sent back to countries where religious conversion is punished with long prison terms or death sentences. The ministry was apparently “ignoring” official church certificates and “belittling” the involvement of asylum-seekers in church communities.
BAMF admits that mistakes have been made. Handelsblatt has seen written correspondence between Mr. Beck and senior BAMF official Rudolf Knorr, in which Mr. Knorr admits “faults,” “shortcomings” and “insufficiently resolved questions” in the processing of asylum requests. Mr. Knorr told Handelsblatt that the information provided by Mr. Beck was being taken “very seriously” and that case officers would be told if mistakes had been made.
But policy is unlikely to change. The German interior ministry, which has overall responsibility for immigration, backs BAMF. “Conversion alone doesn’t as a rule lead to a justified fear of persecution,” deputy interior minister Günter Krings said in a letter to Mr. Beck. It is BAMF’s job to assess whether applicants would practice their faith in a way that would render them subject to persecution if they were sent back home, the minister added, noting that the government’s position was supported by a 2015 ruling by the Federal Administrative Court.
Mr. Beck isn’t hopeful that BAMF’s controversial treatment of converts will change. He welcomed its review into some cases where mistakes had been made, but said: “Those decisions should never have been taken in the first place.”
Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org