Danish police have used force to evict 17 Iraqi men from a Copenhagen church where they had sought refuge.
Five protesters from a crowd who tried to prevent the police moving in were also arrested during the operation.
Clashes broke out between the protesters and police on Wednesday night as the Iraqis were put on a bus outside Brorson’s Church.
Danish media say Denmark and Iraq have established a legal framework for the repatriation of failed asylum seekers.
An Iraqi delegation is to visit Denmark later this month to help identify the evicted Iraqis, who had been sheltering at the Protestant church in the capital’s Noerrebro district since May, the Politiken news website reports.
Denmark’s former Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen accused police of having “ignored human decency” by raiding the church to oust the Iraqis.
Danish policewoman moving protester, 13 August 2009
Police used batons to clear protesters from the scene
But Justice Minister Brian Mikkelsen, quoted by Politiken, defended the police action.
“I think we would have preferred not to have to use force,” he said.
“But we happen to live in a democratic society which is built on people abiding by the country’s laws and rules and there’s no special treatment just because you occupy a church.”
Besides the 17 arrested in the church, two more Iraqis – apparently connected to the group – were arrested later when they turned up at a police station.
The Iraqis and their families have been denied asylum in Denmark. They are to be returned to Iraq, but were hoping to avoid that by hiding in the church.
About 30 Iraqis had settled in the basement of the church, but were woken up by the police banging on the church door at night, demanding it be opened.
“Within 30 seconds, 30 officers or so had entered the church and blocked all the exits,” said 28-year-old Misja Krenchel. She spent the night there as a volunteer for the organisation Church Asylum, which supports the Iraqis’ fight to stay in Denmark.
“People were panicking as the police entered the church,” she remembered.
The Iraqis gathered around the altar holding chairs and candlesticks, hoping to defend themselves against the police.
“Our intention was to find a peaceful solution to the situation,” said Flemming Steen Munch, spokesperson for the Copenhagen police.
For two hours, the atmosphere in the church was tense, but fighting was avoided. Ms Krenchel and another Dane staying with the Iraqis tried to calm the situation down, but at least one of the Iraqis threatened to commit suicide.
Eventually, the Iraqis gave in, crying and saying goodbye to their wives and children. All 17 men were arrested and taken from the church to an asylum centre.
Denmark’s Minister of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs, Birthe Roenn Hornbech, says an agreement has been struck with the Iraqi authorities over returning more than 250 Iraqi citizens – even if it is against their will.
However, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki denies that such an agreement exists.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Amnesty International have criticised the Danish government’s plan to send the Iraqi refugees home. They argue that the situation is still too unstable in several regions.
Nevertheless, the first six Iraqis were sent back to Iraq in late June and another seven followed on Thursday.
According to Pastor Per Ramsdal of Brorson’s Church, this is the first time the Danish authorities have entered a church to arrest people. His church has been left in a mess – and he is in shock.
“I am shocked by what has happened – and by the way it has happened. It is a sad day for our country, the society and the Danish church. It is a violation of our sacred room,” he explained.
In Copenhagen, a demonstration is taking place on Thursday evening in sympathy with Iraqis. A huge crowd is expected.