German church and state clash in asylum row

Germany's policy of mercilessly deporting unwanted immigrants has sparked a row between church and state. After a series of confrontations between the clergy and the police, the government has ordered the bishops to rein in their turbulent priests and nuns, or face the wrath of the state treasury.

In an interview published yesterday in church newspapers, the justice minister, Edzard Schmidt-Jorzig, accused the ecclesiastical authorities of overstepping the law. The churches, he said, were wrong to provide sanctuary to foreigners escaping deportation. "In a constitutional state the decision about asylum is the exclusive domain of independent courts," the minister thundered.

In recent weeks, there has been a spate of highly-publicised protest actions against the way foreigners are bundled out of the country. In the most spectacular rebellion so far, 35 Benedictine nuns sat down in the middle of the road last week, preventing police from taking away a family they were sheltering in their convent. They had fled from the Ukraine, where the father had deserted from the navy. He had argued that a prison sentence was awaiting him back home, but because Ukraine is not regarded as a country which persecutes its citizens, his application for asylum was turned down.

The man, his wife and their five-year-old daughter then sought shelter in the convent. The hapless policemen sent to arrest the family fled in terror when threatened with hellfire, and the plane bound for Ukraine was forced to take off without three of its passengers.

The government is furious, and threatening to hit the churches where it hurts most. Religion is nourished from taxes, an arrangement with which Mr Schmidt-Jorzig professes to be "not very happy".

"The churches can easily become out of touch with ... members of their community when they are not directly financed by them, but by convenient taxes distributed by the state," he said. In other words, take heed.