Berliners reject religious lessons

27th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

More than half rejected offering the classes alongside the ethics lessons, introduced in 2006 after the "honour killing" of a woman by her brother in Berlin's sizeable Muslim minority.

Berlin -- Berliners rejected Sunday giving the city's secondary school children the choice of religious education lessons instead of mandatory ethics classes, preliminary results from a referendum showed.

With 95.5 percent of votes counted, 51.3 percent said "no" to offering the classes alongside the ethics lessons, introduced in 2006 after the "honour killing" of a woman by her brother in Berlin's sizeable Muslim minority.

Although the margin of victory given by Berlin's elecToral commission was small, the "yes" vote would have failed in any case because only 22.8 percent of the German capital's 2.4 million voters cast ballots.

For a "yes" result to have been valid, at least 25 percent or 610,000 people would have had to have voted in favour.

The compulsory ethics classes are aimed at fostering common values and giving children from different backgrounds a forum to discuss issues such as sexuality, women's rights and abortion.

Supporters of a "yes" vote wanted children to have the choice between ethics classes and religious education, as they do in most of the rest of Germany, with children of different religions taught separately.

The heart of the debate

The referendum goes to the heart of the debate on how children from Germany's sizeable Muslim minority are best integrated into modern society.

Germany's biggest city, described by one sociologist as "the world capital of atheism," got a wake-up call in 2005 with the "honour killing" of a woman because of her secular lifestyle.

Shocked by how such a crime could occur in the capital of a country that aspires to be a modern, multicultural success story, its left-wing city hall decided that schoolchildren needed a lesson in ethics.

The idea was to foster common values in schools in a city where over 40 percent of children come from immigrant families, most of them Muslims, and nip dangerous radicalism in the bud.

Germany, which opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq but has around 3,700 troops in Afghanistan under NATO command, has managed to escape terror attacks by Islamic radicals but authorities say there is still a serious threat.

Not optional

Following the 2005 murder of Hatun Surucu, the city introduced mandatory ethics classes in 2006-7 that all secondary school students -- from whatever background -- in Berlin have to attend.

Beforehand, children could take voluntary religious education classes like pupils in most of the rest of Germany. These were poorly attended, and attendance has slumped since the ethics classes were introduced.

This prompted considerable anger and to 265,000 people signing a petition which forced Sunday's referendum organised by a group called Pro Reli -- "Reli" being what kids call religious classes.

The group wants children to be able to choose between the ethics class and take "Reli" lessons instead, with children of different religions being taught separately.

Pro Reli says that the whole idea behind the compulsory ethics classes is wrong-headed. Learning more about Islam, not less -- and openly, not behind closed doors -- will help stop young Muslims turning into radicals, it claims.

Leaders from other religious groups say children must be steeped in teachings from their own faith in order to understand the beliefs of others.

Supporters of the compulsory ethics classes counter that allowing children to choose between either ethics or religion lessons would split classes up and mean less integration, not more.

They also say hot-button issues such as abortion, women's rights and sexuality should be aired in a secular forum where all sides can be considered.

"Particularly when it comes to fostering values, children should not be separated on religious grounds and classes split," according to a leaflet from the city's ruling Social Democrats.

This "would be bad for integration in Berlin and bad for the education of our children," it says.

The campaign has seen billboards plastered all over Berlin -- many have been vandalised -- and it has drawn in celebrities from the worlds of politics, sport and entertainment on both sides of a lively and sometimes heated debate.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a pastor and leads the Christian Democratic Union party, supports Pro Reli, and on Saturday Pope Benedict XVI -- who is German -- underlined his support for religious education in Rome.


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