"They could no longer endure the harassment": An Interview with the Head of the ZOCD Working Group for Refugees

Michaela Koller asked Paulus Kurt of the Central Oriental Christians in Germany — “Zentralrat Orientalischer Christen in Deutschland” (ZOCD) about the background and consequences of this phenomenon. Mr. Paulus Kurt, you are the head of the working group for refugees of the ZOCD. The future has probably never looked so bleak for Christians in the Middle East, and that’s why so many of your fellow believers come to Europe. Tell us about what happened in your own life.
Paulus Kurt: I was born in 1965 in Tur Abdin, in a village near Midyat [Turkey]. As young as six or seven years old, I saw the role war played in the region. It had an impact on us Christians. I witnessed people leaving, en masse, without their belonging to go to Europe in the 1970s. At first, we left our village and from 1976 to 1980 we lived in Istanbul. After that, we left for Germany. It took six years for our asylum to be granted. It took so long because it was difficult to get religious persecution recognized. That hasn’t changed to this day.
That is disturbing to hear because there are German politicians fighting for worldwide religious freedom at international conferences. How did you start working with refugees?
PK: As I look at the situation now, it has long been clear that Christians would be caught in the crosshairs and many would flee to Europe. I didn’t want to remain inactive regarding this difficult situation. We didn’t want to just leave these people alone. Our organization is the voice of these Christians.

Recently you, along with human rights organizations, said at a press conference that Christians from of the Middle East have a reason to be scared, even in Germany. They are being harassed by radical Muslims in the camps where they have to stay for the first six months after they arrive in Germany. When did you first hear of such cases?
PK: This is not a new problem in Germany. When Christians have to live alongside Muslims they have these experiences. Two or three years ago, an Iraqi family in Freising could no longer endure the bullying in the center and voluntarily returned home. When the masses of refugees arrived last summer, it was clear to me that people were going to be housed together again and that these problems would await us. Last July, I mobilized other Christians and established a group of supporters near [the district of Freising near Munich]. As soon as I did this, we received our first requests. That was last August. The group of supporters then expanded to help people throughout Germany. Many are committed to the Central Council and most of the supporters are familiar with the problems faced by refugees because their own families’ experiences. Did you contact the authorities? How did they react?
PK: We contacted the home managers first, to draw attention to the problem. We initially asked them to what extent were they already informed. They often tried to gloss over it and argued that the homes were just very cramped. We continued caring for the people and noticed that some situations were even worse than we were told. We then contacted the authorities and even told some politicians, but we got almost no support. We trusted in what we were told: Germany is a secular state under the rule of law. The authorities said that people who come here seeking protection have to live together peacefully. But they didn’t propose a solution for how to do that. And in most cases, the authorities lack the proper cultural and historic background knowledge. What kind of help did you expect?
PK: We wanted them to recognize the problem and deal with it. And that something would finally change. Christians are a minority among the refugees. When affected people complained, nothing happened or the process took too long. People were in fear for their lives. The first problem was that it was one person’s word against another’s. The second problem was that the translators were also Muslims and were often biased in favor of the accused. I know of cases where translators told Christians on the way to the police, that they could forget their asylum applications if they pressed charges. I often witnessed complaints being withdrawn because the Christians were threatened.
Are these events known to the authorities?
PK: They told us that they couldn’t do anything if no one filed a complaint. The cases that were reported took far too long to investigate, and people who did complain to police were then subject to even more pressure in the homes as a result. They weren’t only harassed by the accused, but also by larger groups. The message is clear: If you dare to report us, there will be consequences.
What do you suggest for solving the problem?
PK: One solution would be to record a person’s religious affiliation as soon as they register here. Within a few months, however, more than a million people arrived in Germany and they needed short-term housing. I visited a few camps in the Munich area to look at the situation. I saw seven people living together in a 22 square meter room. Christians, many of whom had to flee their home countries because of their religion, have had to live alongside the very people they fled from. However, I also spoke to a Munich home manager who said that it was important to know who has what identity, where each refugee comes from, and what religion they belong to. That way, this can be taken into consideration when determining where each should be placed in the accommodation. And indeed, there were almost no problems in this center.
When did the numbers of cases rise?
PK: In October. We realized that we couldn’t keep up with them anymore so we set up a hotline. It’s a mobile phone number, managed by someone who speaks many language including, Arabic, Assyrian, Aramaic, Kurdish, English, and German. He collects some basic data and then we connect the callers with people who will care for them; we call them “integration guides”. The hotline is not as busy right now.
Could you provide figures for how many incidents have occurred?
PK: No. But when we spread the information about the hotline, many calls came in. They were not all about violence, but also questions. We got to know about the problems these people struggle with. 
Have you calculated any statistics?
PK: No, we were really busy with contacting the people personally to see how we could help. We have no statistics. 
This is understandable. Have you documented each case?
PK: Sure we have the refugee’s data so we can continue to care for them. As time went on, we created a questionnaire. The data will be summarized, but that will take a while.  
Do only Christians have these problems?
PK: We realized that Yazidi have the same problems, as do the Alawites that come from Syria. I can imagine that are some other minorities who are also suffering. 
If these are not isolated cases, one must assume that there is a larger conflict at work. What is the background of this?
PK: One reason among others is that radical Islamic groups have formed and spread in some homes. 
There is security in these camps. What do you say about them?
PK: We found out that Muslim security guards would support their fellow believers and thus discriminated against others. Christians experienced that the guards neglected their responsibilities and some security guards have threatened Christians when they reported this. In some homes we have even seen Salafists hired as security guards.  
It is the role of the security staff to protect the weak from the strong, but some appear to be biased…
PK: Yes. For Muslims it goes without saying that they will stand on the side of fellow believers. Therefore, it is hard for Christians to get the support they need from the authorities. In the homes that are run by Muslims, Christians have nothing to say at all.
Trust in the rule of law will be destroyed…
PK: The rule of law that these Christians have hoped for does not function within these homes. The wrong people were trusted to implement the law and protect minorities. You have to realize that among 400 to 500 people, there are only maybe four or five Christians and members of other minorities. The powerful majority calls the shots, just as we see in the Middle East.  
What is your advice to the refugees?
PK: Our advice is always: In case of abuse, whether physical attacks or harassment, you should look at the rights you are given by the state. They have to trust that they won’t have to worry about further attacks. Then their fears will fade.
Your advice to the politicians?
PK: Politicians must talk openly and honestly about these cases. Their responsibility is to make sure that the rule of law is always enforced in the asylum centers.
What political measures does the ZOCD suggest?
PK: If you cannot house refugees separately [based on religion], then people with the same religion should be placed in a shared room. Additionally, institutions have a special responsibility to ensure the safety of minorities. 
Author: Michaela Koller 

This interview originally appeared in a two-part series on Zenit’s German site. The originals appear here and here.

It was translated into English by the Observatory and reprinted with the author’s kind permission. We are responsible for any errors.