Shaping Europe's reaction to terror

German leaders and protesters counter anti-Islam hate groups with an embrace of tolerance. One Berlin project even plans a joint house of prayer for Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

President Joachim Gauck, Chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany Aiman Mazyek, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and representatives of religious communities link arms during a Jan. 13 vigil in Berlin for the victims at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

In the wake of the killings in Paris at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, all eyes were on France to see if anti-Islam protests would break out. Instead, some 25,000 people gathered in Germany Jan. 12, led by a group called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. The protests have continued, but are smaller in number.

Yet just as surprising, something else happened that day in Germany, something that may shape Europe’s future as a united continent.

A counterdemonstration was quickly organized against the anti-Muslim group (known by its German acronym, PEGIDA). More than 100,000 people stood in protest – four times as many as the anti-Islam protest. Some held brooms as symbols of a sweeping away of intolerance.

It didn’t stop there. At a later rally in Berlin, where representatives of the major faiths linked arms, the conservative leader of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, asserted what few Western leaders would suggest about their own country: “Islam is part of Germany.”

Her statement is not wishful. It is descriptive. Muslims, mainly from Turkey, have been part of German society for decades, making up about 6 percent of the population.

If non-Muslim Germans have a concern about Islam, Ms. Merkel said, it is whether Islamic leaders can help explain how militants can justify violence in the name of the religion. “This issue can’t be evaded any longer,” she said.

If any European nation is a natural leader in overcoming religious or ethnic hatred, it is today’s Germany. While new fringe groups might try to revive Nazi-style resentments, postwar Germany has created a culture that embraces differences. “Xenophobia, racism and extremism have no place in this country,” Merkel said. “We are a country based on democracy, tolerance and openness to the world.”

Maintaining that culture is not easy. “Integration is hard work but it pays off,” said Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière at the same rally.

And acts of terror should be seen as tactical manipulations to evoke a fear of the “other.” “The terrorists want to drive us apart, but they have achieved the opposite,” said Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president, at the rally.

Europe’s reaction to terrorist attacks needs to be one of interfaith understanding and peaceful coexistence. This cannot be fleeting or merely verbal. One concrete example is a project in Berlin to build a church, synagogue, and mosque under one roof as a house of prayer, known as The House of One. The proposed building has been designed, and a plot of historical land has been given by the city. Fundraising began last year with groundbreaking expected in 2016.

The project, started by a Protestant pastor, a Jewish rabbi, and Muslim imam, would create a rarely seen house of prayer for the three main monotheistic faiths. Each faith would have its own worship area in a hexagonal brick building with a 130-foot tower.

By praying under one roof, the three faiths would send a message that God, and the worship of Him, can unite rather than divide. The common areas would serve as a place for dialogue and the planning of social activities for the public, in both Germany and the rest of the world.

The imam, Kadir Sanci, likes to cite a verse from the Quran in support of the project: “It may be that God will bring about love and friendship between you and those of them with whom you are in enmity. God is All-Powerful, and God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate.”

In both words and deeds, Germany may be guiding Europe in how to counter hateful acts of terror as well as hateful reactions to them.

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