A Congolese priest in Germany has resigned after he received death threats targeting him for his work with refugees and his race.
Olivier Ndjimbi Tshiende, 66, had been serving at St Martin’s Catholic church in Zorneding, a small town near Munich, since 2012 but several racist death threats against him had forced him to resign in a sermon to his parishioners.
Tshiende, who has German citizenship and a philosophy doctorate, received several postcards saying “off to Auschwitz” and was subjected to racist slurs by local politicians from the conservative faction of the Christian Social Union (CSU), who are politically aligned with chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Sylvia Boher, one of the CSU politicians blamed for anti-refugee statements in German media, penned an article in October for her party’s newsletter last year saying that Eritreans were overrunning the country, which Tshiende had taken exception with. In response, her CSU colleague Johann Haindl had warned the priest to tone it down using the word “neger” in German. The now out-dated term meaning “negro” is still used among older Germans’ vernacular.
“It was just a matter of time that he would leave”, Boher told Quartz of Tshiende’s departure. “My colleague and I were deeply disappointed about how the press saw us because it’s not a racist word, it’s just the other way around. Neger does not mean any bad thing. They don’t understand our language and culture”.
The serious death threats to Tshiende, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), come as a surprise to the 9,000 residents of the picturesque town, who have received around 50 African refugees in the past year.
“We have lots of people coming into our country with no papers at all. Even Pope Francis talks about an ‘Arab invasion’, so what’s wrong with my wording? I explained to Father Olivier that the refugees after World War II are not the same as refugees nowadays. People coming nowadays don’t speak German and don’t know our culture, they choose to come to Germany”, Boher added.
Police are investigating any possible links between the politicians’ remarks from last year to the death threats but local refugee advocate Angelika Burwick was worried about how these politicians’ anti- refugee rhetoric was fueling racist vitriol.
“I think what happened with the priest is not Christian, let alone human” she said.
Burwick had worked alongside Tshiende in organizing events through her group Helferkreiz Zorneding to promote social cohesion in welcoming the refugees, mostly young men from Eritrea and the Central African Republic.
“He was always there when you asked for help and was very wise in dealing with people”, she added.
In an interview with Suddeutsche Zeitung last year after Boher’s divisive remarks, Tshiende urged that her party “should live up to its Christian ideals” that are part of its name. He also praised Merkel’s stance in dealing with the refugee crisis calling for more “Christian values such as love, compassion and tolerance” in the political debate.
For Emmanuel Ndoma, another Congolese priest based in Ansbach, a town near Nuremberg in Bavaria, Tshiende’s departure has not worried him.
“I don’t fear for my life,” Ndoma told Quartz. The Protestant priest, 48, who had escaped Mobutu’s rule in 1992 as a refugee leads a diverse congregation made up of Congolese, Tanzanians and Angolans.
“I can understand the situation now is not easy for migrants overall. It really depends on the area in Bavaria”, he said.
Bavaria, Germany’s richest state, is witnessing the rise of right wing parties such as Eurosceptics Alternative for Germany (AfD) and extremist movement Pegida whose leader Lutz Bachmann blamed refugees for foiled terrorist attacks in Munich earlier in the year.
Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU, has also been strident in his criticisms of Merkel’s ‘open door’ policy for refugees threatening to sue her.
Dr. Benjamin Simon, a German researcher who authored a book on African Christian migrants to Germany and was raised in Congo himself, said, “this type of populist politics has sharpened with the asylum crisis. Suddenly it’s now all people of migrant backgrounds that are put in one bowl with no differentiation”.
A petition calling for the priest to stay with over 55,000 signatures overnight was started by a Zorneding resident keen to shed off allegations of blanket racism. A vigil will be held tomorrow to show solidarity with Tshiende. BBC reported Tshiende is being transferred to a new post next month.