Olivier Ndjimbi-Tshiende, whose public support for refugees polarised Zorneding residents, leaves after receiving hate mail
Bavarian officials and residents have been rallying in support of a Congolese-born priest who has received death threats since speaking out in defence of refugees.
The Roman Catholic priest, the Rev Olivier Ndjimbi-Tshiende, told parishioners during mass on Sunday that as a consequence of the threats he would no longer serve the congregation in Zorneding, a community of 9,000 people about 15 miles (25km) east of Munich, Germany.
The 66-year-old priest initially said he would still celebrate Easter mass with the congregation this month and stay until 1 April, but he later changed his mind and instead left Zorneding immediately, church officials and community members said. Ndjimbi-Tshiende is expected to take a different position within the church, but details have not been announced.
At the church rectory on Tuesday, there was no sign of anyone inside and nobody answered the door. The church would not say where the priest had gone. Two small cardboard banners had been placed on the ground next to Ndjimbi-Tshiende’s mailbox, reading “solidarity with the priest” and “arrest those who threatened murder”.
Moritz Dietz, a 21-year-old parishioner, said Ndjimbi-Tshiende was a smart and enlightened man. “He even prayed for those who sent him those evil letters,” Dietz said, adding that he was shocked by the priest’s departure and did not know what had triggered his decision to leave.
Zorneding’s deputy mayor, Bianka Poschenrieder, said the anonymous threats and abuse came after Ndjimbi-Tshiende in November publicly criticised a local politician’s assertion that Bavaria was being overrun by refugees. “I don’t know why he now left in such a rush,” Poschenrieder said. “It actually seemed like things had calmed down in recent weeks.”
The deputy mayor condemned the death threats, saying: “For our community this is very sad, and I personally find it horrendous that these death threats have succeeded in pushing our priest out.”
She said community officials, parishioners and police planned a candlelit vigil on Wednesday night in an expression of solidarity.
The Bavaria state governor, Horst Seehofer, also condemned the death threats against the Congolese priest as “unacceptable”.
Ndjimbi-Tshiende was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to a family of farmers. He first went to Germany to study philosophy at a Munich university in 1986. He returned to DRC after completing his degree but was unable to find work there, according to his CV on the congregation’s website.
In 2005, he returned to Germany, and in 2012 he took over the St Martin parish in Zorneding. It is not unusual for German congregations to have foreign priests lead their communities because there is a shortage of German priests.
Dietz, who is also a member of the community council and is organising Wednesday’s vigil, said he was hoping for a big turnout. “I hope there will be thousands to show their support for our priest,” he said.
Communities and cities across Germany have been struggling with the arrival of more than 1 million refugees last year, and resistance against people from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries has been on the rise.
While Zorneding houses only about 50 asylum seekers in temporary homes near the train station, the number of refugees and migrants arriving nationwide has polarised society, with some Germans expressing concern over the high number of refugees and others continuing to welcome people who have fled war and poverty.
Officials in Zorneding said the community had been divided over the issue and that Ndjimbi-Tshiende, with his outspoken support for the refugees, had further polarised the village.
Munich prosecutors, who have been investigating the case, say the priest was sent three threatening letters, with one declaring: “We will send you to Auschwitz.”
The prosecutors’ spokesman, Ken Heidenreich, said the message was considered a murder threat. The other two letters stated: “We know where you live. We know where your car is.”
The anonymous letters were sent to the priest between November 2015 and January 2016, Heidenreich said.
A postal worker dropped off a small package and assorted mail for Ndjimbi-Tshiende at the deserted, snowy rectory on Tuesday. The postman, who declined to give his name, said the number of letters to the priest had at least doubled since he took a stand against racism.