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Germany

Germany's Not-Quite-So-Secular Democracy

Religion still plays a significant role in German politics, despite an official separation of church and state. Up to now, Christian groups had the greatest say, but this is slowly changing.

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Freedom of religion is guaranteed under Germany's constitution

For people in Germany, the arrest and near-execution of an Afghan convert to Christianity in Kabul is hard to understand. In contrast to many Islamic countries such as Afghanistan, Germany has a clear separation of church and state, at least in principle.

But this separation is not as strict as one might expect. While churches in Germany do not dictate politics, they are still one of the many political players within the framework of the country's democracy.

German religious leaders make public statements on many political issues -- for example on moral issues such as abortion, or social questions such as the integration of foreigners. These statements do not, however, have the same impact as they used to. One reason for this is the decline in the number of faithful who officially belong to a particular church.

Germa n churches losi n g members

Papst Trauergottesdienst in Berlin

Full churches have become a rare sight in Germany

Both the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany have been complaining for years about declining membership. Around 60 percent of people in Germany belong to one of these two Christian denominations; more than 30 percent do not belong to any religious community at all.

The right to practice or to leave a religion is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed under Germany's basic law. But the state still has control over how this happens -- a German citizen can only officially renounce membership in a church through a civil registry office or at a municipal court.

Michael Basse, a church historian, said that protests by church groups after the end of World War I prevented a complete separation of church and state in Germany.

"There was already an attempt to introduce a radical separation of church and state during the November Revolution (overthrow of the monarchy in 1918-1919)," Basse said. "But the Protestant and Catholic churches mobilized their members to hold massive demonstrations to prevent this. During that time the main point of contention was the issue of religion classes in schools."

Li n ks betwee n the church a n d state remai n

Gemälde; Tafel; Bild; Seminar; Lehrer; Professor; Mann; Mensch; Theologie; Unterricht; lernen; erfahren; Schule; Ausbildung; Studien; Studium;

Crosses hang in many German classrooms

Unlike schools in other secular countries, German public schools still offer religion courses, and public universities in Germany continue to train future theologians. In addition to education, there are other institutional links between the church and state.

For example, the state tax authority is responsible for collecting the so-called church tax. This goes towards financing staff, houses of worship, and social welfare institutions such as hospitals and kindergartens, which are often run by church groups.

The limits of church power in Germany are still defined by a clause in the legal code of the Weimar Republic, which dates back to the year 1919. It gives the two Christian denominations special privileges such as tax breaks -- which do not apply to other religious groups in Germany.

Michael Basse said he wonders if this is going to change.

"An interesting political question would be to what extent there is a readiness to apply these benefits to other religions," he said.

Teachi n g Islamic religio n i n Germa n schools

Islam-Unterricht an Schule

Few schools offer religious education for Muslim students

This question is of particular interest to Germany's Muslim community. The country's three million Muslims are also guaranteed freedom of worship under German law.

But there are still some difficulties when it comes to religious education for Muslims. Only a few federal states in Germany currently have pilot projects for Islamic religion classes in schools. This is partially due to a lack of initiative on the part of the German school system.

But another challenge is the high number of Muslim umbrella groups and different Islamic religious denominations in Germany. Government officials say it is difficult to find a consistent representative for the entire Muslim community who can decide on a fixed curriculum for Islamic religion classes.

But this will likely be resolved in the near future. At the same time, the influence of churches on German society continues to decline. While churches were an especially strong political force in the early days of the federal republic, their role is fading increasingly into the background, said church historian Michael Basse.

"The times in which politicians had to fear the power of the churches are long gone," he said.

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