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Muslims in the German military to get their own chaplaincy

April 1, 2024

Bundeswehr soldiers of Islamic faith have long lacked the pastoral care available to their Christian and, as of recent years, Jewish counterparts. What was once seen as politically impossible is about to change.

A woman sits on the rubble of her house in Kahramanmaras, Turkey February 14, 2023.
After the earthquake in Turkey, Bundeswehr soldiers witnessed extreme suffering. Muslim soldiers said they felt inadequately supported. Image: Nir Elias/REUTERS

As the parliamentary commissioner for the German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, Eva Högl is responsible for ensuring that the issues and needs of German soldiers get heard. In mid-March, Högl presented her third annual report in her role as commissioner — and once again, she pushed for a military chaplaincy for Muslims.

No matter which political party has controlled the Defense Ministry, when it comes to Islamic military pastoral care, the political line has remained the same for years: It's not possible, there's no partner to approach on the Muslim side.

Högl, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), is no longer content with that response. The "lack of an equally empowered military chaplaincy for soldiers of the Islamic faith" is "extremely unsatisfactory." Högl has demanded that the Defense Ministry speedily institute this pastoral care, to be provided by qualified personnel on a contractual basis.

Eva Högl presents the 2023 report on the Bundeswehr in the Bundestag
Eva Högl presented the annual report on the Bundeswehr in MarchImage: Carsten Koall/dpa/picture alliance

Högl recalled the multiweek aid mission that the German army undertook in southeast Turkey following the devastating earthquake in February 2023. Muslim soldiers were among the deployed, yet pastoral care was provided by two non-Muslim military chaplains. According to Högl, she received feedback indicating "that Muslim members of the military felt somewhat abandoned when it came to their religious practices."

3,000 Muslims among Germany's troops

In response to an inquiry by DW, a spokesperson for the Defense Ministry estimated the number of Muslim soldiers to be around 3,000, based on a study from 2023.

Nearly 25 years ago, the Center for Inner Leadership, the educational institute that defines the profile and identity of the Bundeswehr, published a paper entitled "Muslims in the Bundeswehr." Calls for Islamic pastoral care have been ongoing for more than a decade.

German army recruits wearing ceremonial service uniforms stand in formation with their backs to the camera
An Islamic chaplaincy would provide pastoral care to the Bundeswehr's roughly 3,000 Muslim soldiers Image: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

The military chaplains currently serving the armed forces' other religious communities are also pushing for qualified care for Muslims in uniform. Bernhard Felmberg, a Protestant military bishop, told DW that both he and other Protestant military clergy have been approached by soldiers wanting to discuss the need for pastoral care. These needs must be recognized, he added.

Military pastoral care, Felmberg explained, guarantees the constitutional right to freedom of religion for soldiers, who provide a special service.

"As an increasing number of Muslims are serving in the Bundeswehr, I expressly support giving these soldiers the option of pastoral care in their religion," he said.

Representatives of both Catholic and Jewish military chaplaincies have expressed similar sentiments in the past months.

The US, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Norway are among the countries that provide Islamic pastoral care; most of them also have military imams. Germany, however, lacks the state-regulated arrangement needed for this, as there is no umbrella organization that represents all Islamic denominations.

In contrast, the introduction of Jewish military pastoral care was made possible in 2019, thanks to cooperation with the Central Council of Jews in Germany, a well-established institute able to speak for various denominations of Judaism in Germany. There are thought to be some 500 Jewish members of the German military.

German governing parties calling for Islamic chaplaincy

Three representatives from the parties that make up the current coalition government also advocate for support for Muslim troops in the Bundeswehr: Konstantin Kuhle, the vice president of the neoliberal Free Democrats' parliamentary group; Aydan Özoguz, the parliamentary vice president and a member of the center-left Social Democrats; and Filiz Polat, the parliamentary secretary for the center-left Greens.

In May 2023, the trio called on the government to institute Islamic military pastoral care, arguing that such a chaplaincy must be a priority. They pointed out that the first graduates of the Islam College (lslamkolleg) of Germany, an educational institute for would-be imams in the northwest city of Osnabrück, had completed their training in February 2023.

Imam training program ‘made in Germany’

According to information gathered by DW, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius responded some two months later, writing that this issue was of particular importance to him, and that he had consequently approved an initial provision for Islamic pastoral care. He said this should occur in the current legislative period and that his ministry was in contact with the Islam College.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (r) stands next to an air force officer during a visit to a German airbase
Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (right) is generally in favor of an Islamic chaplaincy in the BundeswehrImage: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa/picture alliance

The Islam College, founded in late 2019, is not the only place in Germany where imams and other religious care providers can be trained. Few other institutes carry such great political hopes and expectations. This is due, among other things, to the specific actors involved and the project's academic ties.

Muslim troops 'not second or third-class soliders'

In a phone call with DW, Islam College founding director Bülent Ucar said, "We've been hoping for an Islamic military chaplaincy for years." 

Bülent Ucar, founding director of the Islam College in Osnabrück
Ucar, founding director of the Islam College in Osnabrück: Needs of Muslim soldiers are just as important as those of Christian and Jewish troops.Image: Lino Mirgeler/dpa/picture alliance

The Islamic scholar and religious pedagogue pointed to the current expansion of Jewish military pastoral care. On the Muslim side, he said, there's the desire for the "equal or similar provision of personnel and materials."

These are questions that don't necessarily need to be addressed in a state treaty, he added, but that need to be cleared up in the near future.

Muslims in the Bundeswehr are "not second or third-class soldiers," Ucar said.

The state must ensure there is pastoral care, he added.

A spokesperson from the Defense Ministry confirmed to DW that since mid-March 2024, a subject specialist in the ministry has been developing a concrete pastoral care provision for Muslims in Bundeswehr and will be overseeing its implementation. This "initial step" is aimed at broadening the existing Christian and Jewish pastoral care offerings. 

This article was originally written in German.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C