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School prayers

November 30, 2011

On Wednesday, Germany's Federal Administrative Court is set to rule on whether German schools must accommodate Muslims by providing them with a place to pray.

A Muslim pupil in a classroom
Many German schools already accommodate Muslim pupilsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In a landmark case, Germany's Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig will rule on Wednesday whether schools need to provide practicing Muslim pupils with a place and the opportunity to pray.

The case revolves around Yunus M., who was 14 years old when he was barred from observing midday prayers in the corridor of his school in Berlin. Although Muslims have been praying in German schools for decades, his case marks the first time German courts have had to rule on the issue.

"I think the case has been hyped from both sides. Now, we have almost reached the final legal stage and that's why it's now turned into a political debate," said Aiman Mazyek, of Germany's Central Council of Muslims.

"In the past, schools have been more pragmatic and laid-back about the issue, but now that has been pushed back."

Other experts on Islam, such as Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf at the University of Bonn, chime in with that view, arguing that schools have usually had a flexible approach to Muslim prayers, allowing midday and afternoon prayers to be combined, for example.

"The majority of Muslim legal experts agree it's possible to shorten or combine prayers because of illness, travel, or requirements at work," she said.

Neutrality and religious freedom

man reading the Koran
Midday and afternoon prayers could be combined in schoolsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Employers have had a practical approach to Muslim prayers since the 1960s. Depending on the company, Muslims are allowed to observe prayers if it does not interfere with their work.

German law stipulates that the state has to be neutral, meaning it cannot favor any religious faith or creed, as that would compromise freedom of religion.

In practice, it means German schools must accommodate both the state's neutrality and the individual's religious freedom, which is something Muslim associations are trying to exploit, according to Ralph Ghadban of Berlin's Protestant University of Applied Sciences.

"It's about the school, about the state and its duty to remain neutral. That's where Muslim organizations step in," he said.

"In this case it's a convert, and they're often particularly extreme. They try to capitalize on that, to Islamize that area, so to speak."

Much ado about nothing?

But since only a small minority of students belongs to Muslim organizations, the Muslim Council's Mazyek believes Islamization is not an issue.

"It's not down to us, it's down to those often harsh critics of Islam that issues to do with religious practice are artificially whipped up into problems," he explained.

Federal Administrative Court
The Leipzig court is set to rule on WednesdayImage: AP

"Our constitution is like a pillar of religious freedom. And if a pupil wants to observe midday prayers in school, it can be done without much fuss."

Experts like Fabian Wittreck, a public law professor at the University of Münster, believe that to guarantee the right to religious freedom and the neutrality of the state, it's important to treat everybody the same.

In this particular case, everybody should have the right to pray, and if a school is against accommodating prayers, it should have to prove that the act of praying disrupts the peace, for example, if other students are forced to join in.

Accommodating those who want to pray is not against German law.

"In my opinion, it's not against schools' neutral stance on religion and other world views, if they accommodate Muslim pupils by supplying a room they can pray in," said Damir-Geilsdorf.

The Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig is not the last port of call. There is the option of taking the case to Germany's highest court, the Constitutional Court in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, which according to legal expert Wittreck would be more sympathetic than the Leipzig court towards religious freedom.

Author: Daphne Grathwohl / ng
Editor: Michael Lawton