BERLIN — One spring evening in 2015, he said goodbye to his old life. He grabbed that despised book with the white cover, the Holy Koran, and line-by-line, page-by-page, marked all the verses on the topic that troubled him most: sura 2:191; sura 8:39; sura 33:61. These are verses that call on believers to hunt down, seize and kill apostates.
When he was done, he had marked more than 700 verses. Then and there, he decided to be baptized.
The man, who has asked to remain anonymous, is no longer a Muslim. He was born and raised in Iran, but has since fled his home in Tehran and today lives in Berlin as a Christian.
He belongs to a minority among refugees. Time and again, Christians who've come to Germany from the Middle East say they are threatened and attacked by radical Muslims. The man from Tehran says a family member back in Iran had threatened him in a text message: “I’m going to kill you when I find you.”
It is not clear how common these threats and attacks are, since crimes targeting Christians in Germany have only been recorded since January 2017 and the Interior Ministry still lacks statistics on the phenomenon. Last year, the German Bishops’ Conference and the Evangelical Church in Germany issued a joint statement about attacks against Christians in refugee centers, concluding that there was no “extensive and systematic discrimination” against religious minorities.
Independent churches and evangelical organizations disagree. According to their information, violence has been rife between converts and Muslims, especially in refugee centers, where crowded living conditions lead to clashes of minds and faiths. In October 2016, Open Doors, an evangelical charity for persecuted Christians, published a study that documented attacks on 743 Christians.
Now, one year later, experts say that the centers have become safer — but the problem has not disappeared completely.
Gottfried Martens, a pastor at Trinity Church in Berlin, knows the subject well. He says he has baptized some 1,000 Afghans and Iranians in recent years. His church has become a gathering point for refugees living in Berlin and the surrounding area. He has gained a reputation among the refugees: If you want to convert, or if you simply have a problem, go see Gottfried Martens.
Though he the number of attacks in refugee centers has dropped, Martens says the problem has simply moved to the streets. “Many of those who lived in refugee housing a year ago now have private apartments. Of course, this has not changed their attitude toward the Christian faith.” Encounters also occur on the street or the subway. He uses the word “encounter,” a strange trivialization of the problem.
In May, an Afghan Christian woman in southern Germany was stabbed to death, and police probed the possibility of a religious motive.
In July, three teenagers attacked a 39-year-old man on a tram in Berlin because he wore a necklace with a crucifix.
In September, two men in Berlin punched another Afghan man who was also wearing a cross around his neck.
Victims usually do not want to attract attention.
It is unclear how often Christian refugees are attacked on the street. “To our knowledge, it only happens sporadically,” says Ado Greve of the nonprofit Open Doors. “On the other hand, we don’t get word of it much either. Not everyone wants to talk about it.” Victims usually do not want to attract attention to themselves. They also often feel that the authorities will not help. “Of course, the police can only respond to concrete cases.”
Father Martens — Photo: Facebook
Open Doors cites several reasons for the declining number of cases in refugee centers. “First, the influx of refugees to Germany has decreased,” Greve says. “Secondly, housing in large refugee shelters is largely a thing of the past."
As a result, there is less tension between different religions in smaller homes. “The large complexes are only in a few cities, for example in Berlin. There, Christian refugees are occasionally attacked. But the situation is not as bad as in 2015 or 2016.”
Some politicians have also taken measures. Greve offers the Hesse regional government as an example. Together with church representatives, the local parliament in Hesse drew up a list of what the shelters needed, such as Christian translators, Christian guards and Christian employees at the information stands.
One Sunday afternoon Sister Rosemarie was preaching in Haus Gotteshilfe, an independent parish within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Berlin’s Neukölln quarter, an epicenter of violence against Christian refugees. In May and September, residents had reported suspected anti-Christian attacks in the neighborhood. And in August, a fully-veiled woman reportedly assaulted a saleswoman for displaying scantily-dressed mannequins in a shop window. These were isolated cases, too few to speak of a growing trend, but too many to be ignored.
Sister Rosemarie’s full name is Rosemarie Götze. She is a Lutheran and leads services in German and Persian every Sunday. She preaches and someone translates. Afghans and Iranians sit in the wooden pews of her church, listening to her speak of Jesus, the disciples and the parables. They sing Persian songs with Christian lyrics.
Speaking with some of the converts you get the impression that the intolerance goes both ways. “I hate Islam,” one says. “I don’t talk to Muslims.” The recurring mantra is, "we are good, they are bad."
Unlike Gottfried Martens and Open Doors, Sister Rosemarie does not believe that the situation for Christian refugees has improved, noting that most refugees do not report attacks. “They are afraid that they will be attacked again. Or that the families that are still overseas will learn that they are Christians.”
Like the man from Tehran: When he received the threatening text message from his relative, he went to the police. The authorities only advice: break all contact with his family.
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