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German military opens up to rabbis and imams

April 12, 2019

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen wants the Bundeswehr's military chaplaincy to include rabbis and imams. She would like to have it done by the end of 2019. But there are still several potential issues.

A German military chaplain holds a service in the field for Bundeswehr recruits
Image: Imago Images/epd

Since he became the first rabbi to complete an internship with the German military chaplaincy in 2004, Konstantin Pal has fought to make the Bundeswehr more open to different religions.

Back then he accompanied a Catholic priest who was assigned to the marines. "It was no adventure — more like a steep learning curve," Pal, who considers himself liberal, told DW. "Being on board a warship is certainly nothing like being in a university seminar room. But you still learn how to support people spiritually."

At the beginning of April, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced that she intended to recruit Jewish military chaplains. She also said she was trying to overcome legal hurdles to provide Islamic ones, too.

Pal glows when he talks about the plan to recruit rabbis for the Bundeswehr. "It's a very positive development," he said. "And I hope the minister's orders will be implemented soon."

German Rabbi Konstantin Pal lights a Menorah during a Hanukkah celebration in the Kaisersaal in Erfurt
Rabbi Pal has campaigned for the Bundeswehr to open up to other faithsImage: Imago/Viadata

A 'long tradition'

Military chaplains conduct religious services and provide counseling for soldiers in their barracks or during deployments abroad. They have so far always come from Christian denominations, though there are, of course, Jewish and Muslim soldiers.

The official Catholic and Protestant churches' agreement with the state to provide military chaplains has existed for almost as long as the Bundeswehr has. During World War I, the army also had rabbis in the field, including the renowned scholar and theologian Leo Baeck.

Von der Leyen said the Bundeswehr needed to resume to the "long tradition" of having rabbis as chaplains. She also said she would recruit imams. Candidates for the Bundeswehr chaplaincies must be citizens and havecompleted their theological studies in Germany.

Read more: Noncitizen soldiers in Germany 

Different legal statuses

Though the requirements are the same, the process for appointing Muslim and Jewish chaplains are different — and will likely prove much faster for rabbis.

The government recognizes the Central Council of Jews in Germany as a public body, much like it does Christian churches, Jehovah's Witnesses and Ahmadis.

That is not the case for the large Islamic associations. The lack of a formal affiliation of Muslim congregations or official umbrella organization, makes the legal situation more difficult. Instead of signing an agreement with a central organization, von der Leyen is trying to reach agreements with Islamic associations individually. This approach is expected to take longer.

Josef Schuster speaks with Ursula von der Leyen
Von der Leyen with Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews (center)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

According to the Defense Ministry, about 300 soldiers are Jewish and 3,000 are Muslim. Officials are unable to give exact numbers as the Bundeswehr does not formally gather information on religious affiliation.

Anecdotes abound, however. A Jewish officer deployed to Afghanistan was pleased to come across a US Army rabbi. And, before being deployed to Afghanistan, a young soldier explained the Islamic burial requirements to her fellow troops.

"Muslim chaplains are long overdue," Ralf Ceylan, the acting director for the Institute of Islamic Theology at Osnabrück University, said in 2018. "We need them just as much as we need suitably trained Muslim chaplains in hospitals, the police force and prisons." Ceylan said soldiers did not need to practice their faith to feel more comfortable turning to Islamic chaplains for spiritual support and guidance.

Rabbi Pal hopes that his career with the military will continue. Fifteen years after becoming the first Jewish intern with the military chaplaincy, he can still imagine joining the Bundeswehr as a rabbi one day.

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