Priest bridges religious divide by funding Germany's biggest mosque

The cooperation between Rev. Franz Meurer and Iranian Navid Kermani illustrates how far Germany has gone in accepting its booming Muslim minority.

Culture Prize 2009 winners (with folders, l. to r.) Peter Steinacker, Karl Lehmann, Navid Kermani, and Salomon Korn.

The recent Swiss ban on minarets reflects a climate gone sour between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe. But here in Germany, two people have taken a stand to promote a dialogue that goes far beyond symbolics.

Not long ago, the Rev. Franz Meurer, a Roman Catholic priest in a rough Cologne neighborhood, led his parish to raise funds for the construction of a controversial mosque there, slated to be Germany’s biggest in a city most famous for its Catholic cathedral.

And when Navid Kermani, a prominent Iranian-born writer from Cologne, received a national award for his efforts to promote inter-religious dialogue in Germany recently, the Muslim writer reciprocated in kind. At the prize award ceremony, Mr. Kermani announced he would give his share of the €45,000 (US$67,738) award to Father Meurer.

“You not only had a Catholic church tolerating Muslims who want to build a mosque ... but you also had [Catholic] parishioners giving money so that people from another faith could also practice their religion in their own place of worship,” said Kermani, who shared this year’s German Culture Prize with Catholic Cardinal Karl Lehmann; Peter Steinacker, former head of the Lutheran Church in the Hessen region; and Salomon Korn, vice president of the German Jewish Council.

Unthinkable a decade ago, the cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims illustrates just how far Germany has gone in accepting its booming Muslim minority, said Kermani when receiving the Culture Prize last fall.

Every year, the prize honors an artist’s special contribution to German culture. This year, the jury took a different approach, looking for individuals who had worked toward promoting “the peaceful coexistence of the three great Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam,” said Hessen Prime Minister Roland Koch. With the award, he said, the state of Hessen wanted to “point out that religion is a crucial part of the cultural life of a free society.”

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