Berlin school referendum fuels debate on religious integration

A referendum on religion lessons in schools has triggered a fierce debate about how to boost tolerance and improve the integration of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who live in the German capital.

Sunday’s vote may lead to a change in law in the city state of Berlin that would allow pupils to choose between faith-based religion lessons and a compulsory ethics course that aims to equip young people with a broader set of values. The “Pro Reli” campaign wants to change rules, introduced in 2006 out of worry about a lack of Muslim integration, which made Berlin one of Germany’s only states to have compulsory ethics lessons and optional religious courses. The referendum has aroused strong feelings in Berlin, where vandalized placards line the streets and charges of misleading posters have given the campaign a sour tone. It has also provoked a basic debate about fostering tolerance and respect.

The Pro Reli campaign, backed by Christian groups as well as some Muslim groups, who have long pushed for Islamic lessons, says a deep knowledge of their own faith gives pupils a strong moral compass which fosters tolerance. “The tradition of religion lessons in schools in Germany … has among other things led to religious people being less fundamentalist than in some other countries,” Pro Reli head Christoph Lehmann told Reuters. Since World War II, when authorities tried to use churches to strengthen values in a people shaken by the horrors of war and the Holocaust, most western German states have had religious education on the school curriculum. While Germany has roughly equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, Berlin has a long secular tradition. It is also home to Germany’s biggest Muslim (mainly Turkish) community, which numbers about 220,000. Hoping to get Islamic lessons taught, several Muslim groups argue a change in the law could help against radicalization.

“It’s important that schools have enlightened Islamic lessons – and that we avoid unofficial Koran lessons in backyards,” said Ender Cetin of the Ditib Turkish-Islamic Union. Madeline Chambers reports.