Home News Berlin religion referendum inflames tempers

Berlin religion referendum inflames tempers

Published on 24/04/2009

BERLIN – Berlin holds a referendum Sunday that has sent tempers flaring and which is as much about the integration of Germany's Muslims as it is what role God – or indeed Allah – has in the classroom.

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

Shocked by how such a crime could occur in the capital city of a country that aspires to be a modern, multicultural success story, its left-wing town 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 take the threat very seriously.

The result of the honour killing of Hatun Surucu were ethics classes introduced in 2006-7 that all secondary school children – from whatever background – in Berlin have to attend.

Beforehand, children could take voluntary religious education classes like pupils in the rest of Germany, but these were poorly attended.

But now, many people are angry – angry enough for 265,000 people to sign a petition forcing Sunday’s referendum organised by a group known as Pro Reli that wants a choice between ethics classes and religious education.

Pro Reli – "Reli" being the nickname among German kids for religious education classes – that the whole idea behind the compulsory ethics classes is wrong-headed.

"A compulsory ethics lesson, imposed by the state, shows a lack of tolerance," Pro Reli says.

Learning more about Islam, not less – and openly, not behind closed doors – will help stop young Muslims turning into radicals, Pro Reli says.

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

"In order to respectfully consider a different conception of the world, first of all I have to know where I stand," says Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

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

And they say that 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 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 go up all over Berlin – many of which have been vandalised – and it has drawn in stars from the worlds of politics, sport and entertainment on both sides of the lively debate.

According to a recent survey, a wafer-thin majority – 51 percent – of people support a "yes" vote in Pro Reli’s favour. But high turnout is key for the result to carry.

And 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, surveys have found that there is still a division when it comes to religion with most in the East in the "no" camp and a majority in the West planning to tick the "yes" box.

There are of many exceptions, however, and not only between east and west Berliners. Being right or left wing is not necessarily a reliable indication of how someone will vote.

Many Muslim groups have stayed tight-lipped, for example, and hundreds of practising Christians have formed an association called Christians for Ethics and plan to vote "no".

AFP / Expatica