Pope Benedict XVI took time out of his World Youth Day schedule to hold talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his challenger in the Sept. 18 elections, Angela Merkel. But the focus was clearly not politics.
He's here to preach not to politicize
With the German election less than a month away, the main candidates for chancellor could have made a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the World Youth Day a prime media event. Instead Gerhard Schröder and opposition leader Angela Merkel chose to keep the event out of the otherwise high-intensity campaign spotlight.
The meeting, which took place on Saturday as a courtesy visit following the pope's talks with German President Horst Köhler on Friday, brought together not only the top candidates for the Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but also Parliamentary President Wolfgang Thierse and State Premier for North Rhine-Westphalia Jürgen Rüttgers (CDU). The meeting with the political leaders lasted not more than an hour and left little time for photo shots.
Angela Merkel and the pope
After the rather brief meeting, Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union and the daughter of a Protestant minister, told reporters that "it was a great joy to see the Holy Father."
"It was great to meet a German pope on German soil," she said and added that she had spoken with Benedict XVI on issues the Pontiff considers important, such as the future of Europe and current developments in Germany and in the ecumenical movement.
Schröder shakes hands with the pope
Schröder, who is also Protestant -- as are about a third of Germans, -- left the house of the Cologne archdiocese without making an immediate public comment.
The president of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Thierse, on the other hand, went into great depth describing his audience with Benedict XVI as "cheerful and relaxed." The SPD member and practicing Catholic said the pope was an "attentive conversational partner."
Between politics and religion
Thierse told reporters he had mentioned the upcoming German election in September in his talk with the pope. But when asked whether or not the pope would make use of his right to vote in the upcoming election and which party he would endorse, Thierse said that was not the point of the meeting. Benedict XVI, who is the first German pope in over 500 years, is still eligible to vote in national elections.
Instead, Thierse said he discussed the controversial issue of abortion and the church's role in pregnancy counseling. The president of the Bundestag referred specifically to the Donum Vitae (Protection of Life) organization, which was founded by a Catholic lay order in Cologne to provide advice for pregnant women after the Catholic Church pulled out of the state-run pregnancy counseling in 1999.
Wolfgang Thierse, President of German Parliament
Thierse, who himself is a strong advocate of the organization's work, sees the group as part of a "noble battle fighting for the goal of improving protection for the unborn." In his meeting, Benedict XVI underscored the Vatican's position on the issue, Thierse said. But whether or not the pope's statements could be interpreted as a political signal to German politicians was not readily clear.
Islam studies in German schools
The last politician to meet with the pope on Saturday was North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier Jürgen Rüttgers. According to the CDU leader, who heads up the state hosting the World Youth Day, the pope stressed in his meeting the need for Islamic religious studies in German schools along the lines of the curriculum currently offered for Catholic and Protestant pupils.
Muslims growing up in Germany run the risk of becoming "homeless" in the sense that they no longer have ties to their homeland with its culture and religion, the pope reportedly told Rüttgers. These children must be allowed to enjoy the same access to their religious heritage as those of Catholics and Protestants, who make up the majority of Germans. In general, the pope said Germany needs to do more to improve its moral and ethical education.
For more than 20 years, Muslims in Germany have been pressing education leaders to introduce regular religion courses in German for their school-aged children. German bishops have endorsed the proposal, but it has not yet been implemented nation-wide. So far only a few model projects exist in North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony and Bavaria.
Without the state-run religion courses in schools, parents are forced to turn to the private Koran schools to provide their children with instruction and guidance on their belief system. These schools, which do not fall under state control, all too often have the image of preventing rather than encouraging integration in the local society.
Benedict XVI meets with Muslim leaders from the German Turkish community late Saturday in an effort to strengthen ties and understanding between the religions.