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4. Consequences for church and society

Society is changing through immigration. The churches will also have to change. They can help to shape the process. That offers more opportunities than risks…

As a “church in the midst of the world” we want to do our part to achieve peaceful coexistence in society, in accordance with our self-understanding. When it comes to shaping a society defined by migration, we contribute valuable experiences from ecumenical work and interreligious dialogue. Our many years of social policy commitment also equip us to be significant partners in talks for politicians and civil society.

The following section sets out the need for action in the Evangelical Church of Westphalia, and the issues we intend to raise in the political and social debate.

4.1 Deepening the dialogue – developing a more intercultural church

Talking about your own faith and culture is a learning experience and gives reassurance. Showing respect and mutual understanding for one another forms the basis for shaping both the present and the future together…

 

Those living as Christians in Germany by no means always turn up in the local congregation. Christian life is characterised by an increasing diversity of faith communities and forms of spirituality. That is proving a challenge for ecumenical dialogue. Our local congregations and the local ACK (council of Christian churches) do not always focus sufficiently on the Free Churches and Christian migrant communities around and, in turn, they do not always wish for contact.

A large share of the migrants in Germany come from countries in which non-Christian religions form the majority. Muslims of the most varied backgrounds, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Yazidi, Alevi, Bahai, Sikhs and believers from other religious groupings have immigrated to North Rhine-Westphalia and, in many cases, come across believers in their respective religions who have been living in Germany for quite a while. The Muslim associations have been able to give support to migrants through familiar structures. That has, to some extent, fostered integration. The exclusive use of the native tongue and the orientation to national or ethnic affiliation can, however, impede a constructive engagement with the new society, and its values and opportunities for participation.

Interreligious dialogue links up with the religiosity of migrants and supports them in enjoying their right to the free exercise of religion. Information about religious festivals or the creation of prayer rooms, e.g. in hospitals, leads to mutual communication. Bridges are built into society, which in turn contribute to social cohesion. The same applies to ecumenical conversation with immigrant Christian groups.

For the members of the majority religions resident in Germany, interreligious dialogue is important, because the exchange with those of other faiths leads to a review of their own faith and its profile. This then contributes to helping Christians to become articulate about their faith. In Westphalia, prayers for peace by different religions are well established and the ‘intercultural weeks’ and the ‘week of brotherliness’ are examples of cooperation between religions and denominations that impact on the community.

There is a good tradition of interreligious dialogue in Westphalia. Past decades have seen a growth of relations characterized by respect and trust. They promote mutual understanding and form a good basis for tackling present-day religious, human and socio-political challenges together.

Developing a more intercultural church

Diversity is a gift that needs to be nurtured. That also applies to the diversity that people of different origins and cultural backgrounds can mean for our church. This diversity may be enriching.

Practically speaking, that could look as follows:

Congregations discuss the issue with the aim of making acquaintance, approaching and the systematic involvement of Christians of other languages and origins. Particularly of those living in the area of their parish and/or with contact to the parish through the kindergarten, youth work etc. Presbyteries develop a strategy to promote diversity in local church bodies. This approach will then be included in parish policy and put into practice step by step.

Church districts take up the matter in the district synod board. In what decision-making bodes does plurality of origin and cultural diversity lead to a rise in quality? They develop a strategy to make the most of cultural diversity, which is then included in planning at the district level.

The church executive board discusses and adopts a strategy that aims to systematically promote cultural diversity. This then becomes part of personnel policy. Voluntary work is promoted from the angle of diversity management as well.

I find it particularly pleasing that the Evangelical Church wants to cast a critical look at itself and notes, for example, that it needs to become more intercultural. […] The intercultural opening up state institutions, structures and authorities is a particular concern of the state government and of me personally. Firstly, because it is an important precondition for the participation and successful integration of people with a migration history. Secondly, there is a shortage of professionals that is threatening in many areas, and it is necessary to adjust structures, offerings and services to the increasing diversity of society. This means that we cannot – and must not – do without the skills and potential of people with an immigration history.

Serap Güler, parliamentary secretary for integration in the Ministry for Children, Family, Refugees and Integration of the state of NRW
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4.2 Granting sanctuary – strengthening the right of asylum – guaranteeing sage passage

Recently there has been more pressure on congregations granting sanctuary to refugees. It is being made a political issue although this was never the intention. The idea of sanctuary is to gain time for cases of social hardship and prevent deportations in individual cases of human rights violation…

Granting sanctuary

By sanctuary we understand the hosting of refugees in the care of a church parish to prevent the implementation of a state order to deport the refugee. The number of cases in which this church protection from deportation is granted is relatively low in view of the over one million refugees who have come to Germany since 2015. The federal-level, ecumenical working group “Asylum in the Church” estimated it in November 2017 as 348 for the whole of Germany, whereas the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) counted 679 cases from May to September 2017. In North Rhine-Westphalia there were about 100 known cases of sanctuary at the end of August 2017.

Despite their low number, the cases of sanctuary regularly lead to heated arguments. Critics object that granting asylum in a church raises churches above the sole authority of state law, placing humanity above the law and thereby undermining the rule of law. This criticism is correct in that granting sanctuary at first thwarts deportation. However, this does not happen arbitrarily or as the expression of a right of church resistance to the state. It is rather a matter of pastoral and diaconal support for persons who are particularly oppressed. The aim is to ensure a new situation for discussion between the state and the refugee, accompanied by the church. For the churches granting asylum (‘sanctuary’) is the last resort in order to prevent the threat of human rights violations in particular cases of hardship.

The state basically respects this self-understanding of the churches. Accordingly the churches in 2015 concluded an agreement for settling particularly vulnerable cases with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Accordingly, the state does not intervene in such cases and accepts that during the time of sanctuary the deportation will be reexamined legally. In return, the local parishes granting asylum in their church buildings are obliged to report every single case to the authorities and to the competent church offices. So it is not a matter of secretly hiding the refugee somewhere.

In the vast majority of cases of sanctuary since 2015, the renewed examination of the case has led to a positive result, with the refugees concerned receiving the right to remain.

Strengthening asylum law

Fundamental rights and rights of protection for refugees are set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union on the basis of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (Geneva Convention). All the member states are obliged to grant protection to refugees and to examine their application for asylum under the rule of law.

The actual development of refugee protection in the EU is lagging behind these claims. Despite European law, there can be no question of there being uniform standards in asylum procedures and the social participation of refugees in the member states. Especially states on the EU‘s external borders, in particular in central, eastern and southern Europe, refuse a fair and appropriate service provision and accommodation. The reinforcement of border protection with the goal of sealing off the EU is de facto calling the Geneva Convention into question. Particularly the refusal to allow ships that have rescued refugees to put into safe European harbors merits the most severe criticism.

In Germany there are really high standards for refugees arriving in this country. Yet the federal government also supports the policy of sealing off the EU’s external borders. Behind the two legislative packages passed in 2016 and the law on enforcing the obligation to leave lie numerous regulations that aim to deter refugees and run counter to the Geneva Convention.

In particular, the Evangelical Church of Westphalia criticizes the possibility of keeping asylum seekers in the first reception center for up to 24 months, or even without a time limit. During this time there are no integration courses, children are not obliged to go to school and applicants cannot get permission to work.

Another problem is the raising of barriers to recognition of post-traumatic disorders or other illnesses. Not allowing refugees with ‘subsidiary protection’ to have their families come to join them is also ethically and legally questionable. This contravenes the basic right to protection of marriage and the family, as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We will continue to speak up as a church about this deplorable state of affairs. We advocate a humane refugee policy in the whole of Europe.

Guaranteeing safe passage

As an additional instrument the Westphalian church is working to obtain acceptance of a safe passage for vulnerable refugees to Germany, on the model of the successful program of humanitarian corridors in Italy. This is a program that was launched in 2015 on an ecumenical initiative of the Protestant organization Mediterranean Hope by the Federation of Protestant Churches, together with the Sant‘Egidio Community, in cooperation with the Italian state. The Westphalian synod has declared its readiness to mount a pilot project with initially about 100 places. Together with its sister churches in North Rhine-Westphalia, the EKD and the Diakonie, our church is currently engaged in talks with the Federal Ministry of the Interior to be able to implement this approach under the appropriate conditions in Germany. Possibilities are emerging in the context of ‘community sponsorship pilot projects’ (CSP) by the federal government in connection with its current resettlement program. We are aware that such projects can only be regarded as models.

Mediterranean Hope“ (MH) is the refugee aid organization initiated by the Waldensian and Methodist Church, our partner church in Italy and backed by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI). The humanitarian corridor has so far enable many more than 1000 vulnerable people to leave Lebanese refugee camps and enter Italy legally with a humanitarian visa. There the churches cover their accommodation and accompaniment for the period of the asylum procedure and initial integration. The pilot project was so successful that a follow-up agreement has allowed for another 1000 refugees to have a safe passage to Italy. The cooperation was extended to the Catholic Bishops Conference in Italy for refugees from Sudan. Talks about the possibility of a humanitarian corridor from Morocco have also been concluded. In France and Belgium there are now comparable agreements between the church and the government.

Flüchtlingsboot auf Lampedusa

Refugee boat on Lampedusa. Foto: Dirk Johnen

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4.3 Introducing an immigration law

It is almost undeniable that Germany is a country of immigration. However, there is still no immigration law comparable to that of other countries. Such a law could regulate the inflow better and should promote the peaceful coexistence of “locals” and people of different origins…

We particularly welcome the fact that there is finally a political consensus on the need for an immigration law for the Federal Republic of Germany. Clear goals are necessary in order to manage immigration and integration: doing justice to humanitarian responsibility, contributing to guaranteeing prosperity, improving the life together of Germans and immigrants and fostering integration.

An immigration law officially recognizing that Germany is a country of immigration would foster the acceptance of immigration and cultural diversity. Appropriate criteria, rules and procedures for migration to Germany would create clarity and ease tensions in the present uneasy social situation. Another benefit of an immigration law is that it would slow down the decline in trained workers ensuing for demographic reasons and increase employment as a whole.

In all, an immigration law on the basis of an overall policy on migration and integration would bring about a change of perspective and paradigm. It would overcome border-closing and exclusion, and constructively describe ways to negotiate rules for receiving migrants. Such an immigration and integration law would, however, have to expressly include humane, human rights-based refugee legislation bound to the Geneva Convention. Integration measures would have to be available to refugees and other migrants in the same way.

The key decisions on dealing with refugees were taken top-down and many media communicated them in the same way (or so it was felt) – bypassing the available processes of forming political will. But the change towards a migration society will only work if it is confirmed democratically.

Markus Langer, Head of Brand Communication, Evonik Industries AG
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4.4 Taking a position

Not everything is gold that glitters, not even in Germany. There are shortcomings and problems that cannot be discussed out of existence: be it poverty or the housing shortage for families and senior citizens on low incomes. People from other countries are not responsible for that, though. Closing borders does not help, nor do right-wing slogans. Anxieties and concerns must be taken seriously and problems solved…

Human dignity is inviolable (Art. 1 of the German constitution)

Human beings are made in the image of God. That is the basis of their inalienable dignity. Because commitment to human rights is important, we in the Evangelical Church of Westphalia have come out in favor of humanitarian international law and the human rights foundations of the European Union. Consequently our church advocates in many different ways for the rights of refugees, migrants and people with a migration history. In doing so, we uphold the principle that all members of society have a right to participation and just life prospects.

Integration as a “driver for social renewal”

In view of the integration challenge that immigration poses us, poverty-related issues have become even more urgent. Our society should have raised these issues earlier.

The poverty rate in Germany has for years been high. In 2017 approx. 16% of the population was regarded as poor. More and more people live below the poverty line, despite having a job. Those particularly at risk of poverty are families with many children, lone parents, people with a migration history and, increasingly, pensioners. Poverty among children lies at 19%, which is clearly above the population average. In some big cities in the Ruhr area, the group of those at risk of poverty accounts for almost two thirds of the population. Educational success or failure is still strongly determined by social origin. Separation between municipalities is also increasing. The number of disadvantaged neighborhoods is growing. Affordable, good housing is harder to find, partly because of the lack of investment in social housing.

Although these problems have existed for a long time, refugees are often made responsible for them. Certain groupings attempt to fan social envy and racism, and to play off poverty against poverty, and longstanding disadvantaged groups – often also with a migration history – against recent refugees. The poorest of the poor share this hardship. The emergency (e.g. a shortage of affordable accommodation for homeless and mentally ill individuals) is exacerbated when migrants join the competition for scarce resources.

Consequently, we need a policy that takes account of the whole of life in society and supports disadvantaged population groups as well as migrants. Policy instruments along with urban planning and neighborhood development must be further developed and interlinked, with an eye to the needs of the existing residents and immigrants, particularly refugees. A comprehensive integration policy must be developed and implemented at federal, state and local government level. This includes more construction of social housing, an integrating and non-excluding educational system, programs to support families and combat child poverty, the development of disadvantaged neighborhoods with the participation of residents, and access to the labor market for all, regardless of their origin.

A cross-cutting integration policy could thus be a driver for social renewal in Germany.

Dealing with rightwing populism

People are unsettled by changes in their life environment caused by migration, and this is leading to parts of the population closing themselves off to the issue. This should be addressed very seriously. Racism and xenophobia are also present in church parishes.

It is all the more important for churches to defend people who are exposed to attacks for motives deriving from rightwing extremism or xenophobia. Church statements on inhuman positions must be objective and draw the ‘red line’ between freedom of opinion, on the one hand, and rightwing extremism, anti-Semitism, racism and agitation of the masses. The church should raise the justified concerns of refugees and of disadvantaged locals. Social problems such as growing poverty, exclusion and lack of participation must be clearly named.

The parishes have premises that can be used for open communication and discussion. People should not only be encouraged to talk about their faith. They must also be able to talk about their fears and worries about the future. The church should be a place free of fear in which different opinion can be uttered – with respect for those who think differently.

It is important to run educational programs to strengthen democracy at the different church locations with their respective target groups (childcare centers and youth clubs, schools, church adult and family education, men’s and women’s groups, Protestant conference centers etc.). Furthermore, it is important to boost the intercultural competence of staff and foster the cultural opening of churches and parishes.

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