SWITZERLAND, although not part of the EU, adheres to the European Convention on Human Rights, and Swiss Pastor Norbert Valley is also ready to take his case to the ECHR. He wants to change a Swiss law criminalizing humanitarian aid. Valley pastors two churches in the French-speaking region of Switzerland. On Sunday mornings the 63-year-old father of four and grandfather of 14 preaches in his own town of Le Morat and then drives 30 minutes to the Evangelical Church of Le Locle.
During Valley’s sermon in Le Locle on Feb. 11, 2018, two policemen interrupted the service and took him away for questioning. His crime? Two months earlier, Valley offered a church key to a young Togolese refugee, “Joseph,” as Valley calls him, who needed somewhere to sleep. Joseph attended the church for five years while awaiting a political asylum decision. When authorities denied his case and made him leave his lodging, he used the church key. Joseph was eventually questioned and mentioned Valley’s name, and the police showed up.
For Valley, the police’s methods were problematic and smacked of intimidation not usually associated with Switzerland. Valley would have gone willingly if police had contacted him beforehand. When asked why they didn’t, he shrugs: “They said they didn’t have my phone number, although it’s in the directory.” Valley received a fine of $1,000 plus legal fees of $250 for aiding someone in the country illegally. He refused to pay, saying as a Christian and a pastor, he is called to help all people. Valley presented his case in local court in April and awaits a decision.
The law Valley allegedly broke exists ostensibly to protect refugees from rent gouging and human trafficking—but 90 percent of its application is in cases of humanitarian aid. Last year there were 785 such cases. “One guy got a fine of 300 francs [about $303] because someone slept at his house for just two nights! My case is only newsworthy because I refused to pay. It’s a bad law, and I want to change it.”
Valley says his concern as a pastor is for people already in the country and in his community. When our conversation turns from legalese to Biblical teaching, his pastoral zeal becomes clear. Valley cites the Hebrew midwives and Peter in Acts 5, “‘We must obey God rather than men. …’ The church should be the last refuge for people in trouble. It’s wrong that a hospital can treat a sick refugee with impunity, but as a pastor I am punished for caring for them spiritually.” He cites Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who saved 62,000 Hungarian Jews during WWII, crediting him with saying, “The law of life is higher than the text of the law.”
Amnesty International and others are supporting Valley. If the local court doesn’t absolve him, he’ll appeal to cantonal and federal courts. After that, the ECHR is the last resort. Across Europe, as countries wrestle with immigration, other Christians also wrestle with what to do with laws that penalize providing medical care and food. The French government changed such a law last year so as to decriminalize this kind of immediate aid.