Dilemma for Muslims in Berlin

Some parents are uneasy that an Islamic group last month was put charge of religion classes in schools.

A ruling by a German federal court has opened the way for a controversial Islamic group to begin teaching lessons on the Koran to Muslims at Berlin schools.

In a country where religious instruction is a constitutional right, Germany's Muslims have long demanded the same recognition granted to Christians. Today, there are more Muslim than Catholic children in Berlin, a traditional stronghold of Protestant secularism.

"Islam instruction in the schools is a sign of equality. That's not negotiable," says Safter Cinar of the Turkish Association in Berlin. "We've been trying for more than 10 years to find a solution."

Last month, a court sanctioned the Islamic Federation, a group with links to fundamentalists in Turkey, to put together a lesson plan for Berlin's public schools. The decision renewed the debate over what role religion should play in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Thirty years ago, most Germans regarded Islam as the religion of Turkish Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, expected one day to return home. Instead, many stayed and brought their families. Ethnic Turks make up 2.5 percent of Germany's population and roughly two-thirds of the country's estimated 3 million Muslims. Other Muslims here come from the Middle East and Bosnia.

Article 7 of the German Constitution makes religion a regular subject at public schools; nonbelievers are required to take an alternative course such as ethics. Though technically exempt from Article 7, Berlin offers optional religion classes organized by the Protestant and Catholic churches. But Muslim parents have only had the option of sending children to classes offered by mosques.

In 1980, the Islamic Federation applied for permission to offer lessons on the Koran in schools. When its requests were ignored, the federation went to court for recognition as a "religious community" - and eventually won, much to the dismay of advocates of secular Islam. "We couldn't have written a better curriculum," Mr. Cinar says. "It's not an issue of the curriculum, but whether a political organization should be drawing it up."

Through its president, the Islamic Federation has links to Milli Grs, a branch of the fundamentalist Virtue Party in Turkey. Both the Islamic Federation and Milli Grs are under observation by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors radical groups. "It's their job to observe us," says Burhan Kesici of the Islamic Federation. "They will see that we're not fundamentalist. We have never been politically active."

But many Berlin Muslims are skeptical. "I would never send my children to such an organization, because I know that one day they may be poisoned," says Ahmet Cengiz, a teacher and the father of two school-age children. Mr. Cengiz says he would only support Islam classes in the schools if they were drawn up by secular organizations with no hidden political agendas.

To provide for the country's 600,000 Muslim schoolchildren, the Turkish community here has called for a broad-based commission of cultural, academic, and civic representatives to come up with "modern religious instruction." They say it should be designed especially for children living in Germany and based on democratic values.

In comparison with other European states, Germany has been slow to accept Islam as a major national religion. Belgium formally recognized Islam in the 1970s, making Koran instruction possible in schools. Austria and the Netherlands have similar rules, while France, like the United States, draws a clear line between church and state.

Such a separation in Germany would solve the debate over Islam instruction. Yet Article 7 is one of Germany's basic rights. Dieter Oberndrfer is one of the few voices for removing religion from the classroom altogether.

Mr. Oberndrfer, who teaches politics at the University of Freiburg, in southern Germany, says the law is based on the homogeneous society of 50 years ago. Today, virtually every religious group is represented in Germany, and the Protestant and Catholic churches are both struggling with low attendance rates.

"The issue in Berlin is important for the whole country," Oberndrfer says, "If you allow Islam instruction in schools, all sorts of Islamic organizations will try to have influence on it. That's why it would be better to solve the whole thing - as in the US - by separating church and state more clearly than we have up to now."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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