Many Germans voiced outrage following the New Year's Eve terrorist attack on Coptic Christians in Alexandria. But despite the strong words, critics argue that Germany could do more to help Christians seeking asylum.

It's not generally a simple matter for the representative of a religious splinter group with only 6,000 members to get an appointment with an important German politician. But, last Wednesday, all doors seemed to automatically open for Bishop Anba Damian.

David McAllister, the governor of the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony, had invited the spiritual leader of the Copts in Germany for a visit and greeted him warmly by saying: "Our solidarity is with those who are persecuted because of their faith."

The next day, reacting to threats to attack Coptic Christians that had appeared on two radical Islamist websites, police officers were deployed to protect Coptic Christmas services in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Berlin and Lehrte, Lower Saxony.

Like McAllister, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also called for solidarity with the Copts following the online threats. "We are all obligated to stand up for religious freedom," she said on the weekend in her regular video podcast. A short time earlier, while giving an Epiphany speech in the northeastern city of Neubrandenburg, Merkel had called for "the persecution of Christians to be combated wherever it takes place."

Volker Kauder, the parliamentary floor leader of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also issued a strongly worded statement, saying: "It is a sad truth that Christians are mainly persecuted in countries where Muslims are in the majority." Indeed, if Kauder gets his way, German development aid in the future will be "aimed at supporting Christian projects in countries where Christians are under pressure." As a "sign of solidarity," Kauder has also announced his plans to travel to Egypt as soon as possible, adding: "They need our help."

Germany Reluctant to Offer Refuge

Yet German politicians have traditionally been reluctant to grant political asylum to persecuted Christians. A recent exception is a program launched in Germany over the last two years granting asylum to 2,500 Christian refugees from Iraq. But, for persecuted Copts, Germany has never been an easy refuge.

"The prospects in Germany are zero," says Fouad Ibrahim, a Copt and retired professor of social geography at the University of Bayreuth, in northern Bavaria. More than anything else, he adds, that explains why asylum applications from Egyptian Coptic Christians are so rare.

In 2004, an administrative appeals court in the western state of Saarland ruled that "Christian Copts in Egypt are not subject to any political persecution as defined under (German) asylum law." Indeed, according to Ibrahim, Copts hoping to escape religious persecution are better off trying their luck in Sweden, Canada or the United States, where the authorities are not as strict as they are in Germany.

Even in the case of converts -- who Muslims view as traitors to God -- not all German judges have ruled in favor of refugees. But some have. In May 2009, for example, an administrative court in the northwestern city of Minden ruled in favor of the asylum petition of an Egyptian woman who had come to Germany in 2005. The woman had converted to the Coptic faith two years earlier. When her ex-husband found out, he tried to take away their two sons. But the woman managed to leave Egypt with her sons in the nick of time.

The Religious Establishment Responds

Germany's government is also aware of such cases, but so far only the country's churches and human rights organizations have consistently criticized the persecution of Christians. Germany's Roman Catholic Church, for example, has an initiative called "Solidarity with Persecuted and Hard-Pressed Christians in Our Time." Stephan Ackermann, the bishop of the southwestern city of Trier, is in Jerusalem this week to investigate the situation Christians face in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

In the Protestant camp, Margot Kässmann, the former head of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), is one of the most vocal champions of assisting persecuted Christians. Last week, Kässman was a guest speaker at the annual convention of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of Merkel's CDU, held in the Bavarian resort town of Wildbad Kreuth. There, she pointed out that many people in Germany are unaware of the fact "that Christians are the world's most persecuted religious group." In addition to making declarations of solidarity, both the Catholic and the Protestant church in Germany sent high-ranking representatives to the Coptic Christmas services.

The Mass Exodus from Iraq

The situation is especially dramatic for Christians in Iraq. Of a reported population of 1.2 million Christians in 2003, 900,000 have already fled the country in fear of being attacked by Muslim mobs or death squads.

Both the Protestant and the Catholic churches have advocated -- so far unsuccessfully -- for Germany to accept at least 30,000 Christian refugees from Iraq instead of the 2,500 the government has already approved. Last Wednesday, Ehrhart Körting, the Social Democratic interior minister of the city-state of Berlin, sent a letter to federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière calling for a new refugee-acceptance program. Iraqi Christians continue to "vote with their feet," Körting wrote. "If both Syria and Jordan are capable of accepting a million or more refugees," he added, "we should increase the number of religious minorities from Iraq we are willing to accept from 2,500 to 25,000."

In its most recent classified situation report, Germany's Foreign Ministry also concluded that the mass exodus from Iraq is continuing and "very difficult to stop." The violent attacks, the German officials wrote, have already rendered the Iraqi government largely impotent.

Matthias Kopp, the spokesman of the German Bishops' Conference, is all too familiar with the ongoing persecution of Christians around the world. "We are already issuing condolences every few days," he says, "owing to a series of violent acts against Christians across several continents."

By Ralf Beste, Jürgen Dahlkamp and Peter Wensierski for
Der Spiegel and translated from the German by Christopher Sultan



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