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German-Muslim pact

Christina Ruta / srsAugust 16, 2012

Hamburg wants to make an agreement with Muslims and Alevi cementing their rights and responsibilities. It would be the first such pact to be undertaken by a German state.

Man looks at a mosque at St. Georg in Hamburg. (Photo: Marcus Brandt dpa/lno)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Hamburg might soon make it a right for Muslims and Alevi to receive religious teaching in public schools and to take off on special holidays. Social Democrat (SPD) Olaf Scholz presented a draft of these provisions to the mayor of Hamburg on Tuesday (14.08.12). He was joined by representatives of the Muslim organizations and the Alevi community.

Hamburg is home to some 130,000 Muslims and 50,000 Alevi, a Muslim group primarily rooted in Turkey. If the pact goes through, they will receive guarantees for school holidays, religious instruction and funeral rituals.

A first for Germany

The draft plan comes at the end of a five-year-long negotiation period initiated by the previous Christian Democrat (CDU) mayor, Ole von Beust.

"We had the goal of reaching agreement on mutual rights and responsibilities in various parts of life," said Dietrich Wersich, current chairman of the opposition CDU in Hamburg's parliament.

Discussions centered not only on integration and dialogue, but also the recognition of fundamental German values by Muslims and Alevi who live here. One key example was gender equality.

"The agreement repeated and confirmed most of Germany's constitutionally-guaranteed rights," said Zekeriya Altug of Germany's Turkish-Islamic Union. Altug's organization, known by the German acronym DITIB, and two other Muslim groups were involved in the negotiations.

Zekeriya Altug (Photo: DITIB Bundesverband via Christina Ruta of DW)
Altug wants more Muslim religious instruction in schoolsImage: privat

Altug said implementing the agreement has been difficult in part because the city had a hard time finding a dialogue partner in the Muslim community. Hamburg first had to consider whether its Muslim organizations could even be considered a single community. The draft agreement now affirms that's the case.

"This is a novelty that's so far unique in Germany," Altug said, "and hopefully will provide an example for other German states."

Islam in the classroom

Another feature in the agreement is that it gives three Muslim and Alevi religious occasions the status of official holidays. That gives Muslim workers in Hamburg the legal right to take time off on those days. They still have to apply for vacation or make up the work later. Muslim students can get the day off.

Hamburg schools will also be seeing a change in religious education. To date, the Protestant church has organized multidenominational classes. However, Altug said the curriculum was too matter of fact and not religious enough.

"In our view, the model up to now has been insufficiently faith-oriented, especially for Muslims," he told DW. "At best, the teaching had a merely informative character."

In the future, Muslims and Alevi in cooperation with the Protestant church will determine the contents of religious studies. Additionally, Alevi and Muslims are to be employed as teachers.

An Alevite lesson takes place in Hanau, Germany. (Photo: Jörn Perske dpa/lhe)
Muslims are to work as teachers in religious studies in HamburgImage: picture alliance/dpa

Remaining disagreements

It remains unclear whether the greater inclusion of Muslims and Alevi in Hamburg's school system will actually make religious education more faith-oriented. To Wersich, that would cancel out Hamburg's multidenominational approach.

"There are still some questions for us," he said. "We want to hold onto education on religion for all, not [implement] widespread Muslim religious education for Muslim children."

Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats too wants to keep religious education multidenominational.

There is disagreement over other details as well. Politicians wonder whether provisions in the proposed pact will necessitate changes to Hamburg law. Sensitive areas include the construction of mosques, participation of Muslim associations in the state's broadcasting council and whether Muslim women can wear headscarves everywhere. DITIB wants to see a provision banning any form of discrimination against women wearing headscarves.

Altug said such a provision would be "a sign of acceptance, and also of the will to let women participate in society with their religious identity" intact.

That does not sit well with the opposition CDU. "We have a clear position on this," said Wersich. "We want officials that represent the state - whether they be prosecutors, police officers or teachers - to preserve neutrality and not wear religious symbols."

Dietrich Wersich (Photo via Christina Ruta, DW)
Wersich doesn't want religious garb on officialsImage: CDU-Bürgerschaftsfraktion Hamburg

In spite of these differences, both sides essentially see the pact as a positive development. Both the Protestant and Catholic churches have welcomed it. Now it is incumbent on Hamburg's cabinet to pass the bill. After that, the pact will be submitted to the city parliament.