1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Merkel, God and the burqa

Sabine Kinkartz, Berlin / groSeptember 14, 2016

An international parliamentarian conference has found that more and more people worldwide are suffering from religious oppression. Has Germany made strides in that regard? Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged restraint.

Deutschland Parlamentarierkonferenz im Bundestag in Berlin - Religionsfreiheit
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Germany is arguing over the burqa, the full-body covering for Muslim women. Should the burqa and niqab, which only leaves the woman's eyes uncovered, be banned from public life? What would be achieved by doing so? Would integration be fostered or would the ban simply placate the parts of the population that feel a growing unease with the hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees that have come to Germany?

Angela Merkel has urged restraint in this debate. "Although some religiously motivated behavior may seem strange, we must always keep the high value of religious freedom in mind," said the chancellor at the International Parliamentarians' Conference in Berlin. Along with other liberties provided by the constitution, religious freedom belongs to the "core of what makes our country what it is and what we hold dear."

Deutschland Vollverschleierte Frauen bei Kundgebung von Pierre Vogel
Full-face veils: a hurdle for integration, but protected by the constitution?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

This also applies to dress codes. "Freedom rights also protect the freedom to be different from what the majority expects or imagines," said Merkel. She personally considers a full-face veil to be "a great obstacle in integration," but she believes that restrictions can only be made if other fundamental rights are violated, like the rights of others or the principle of state neutrality towards all religion. That is why she advocates "precise plans of action for places where a full-face veil is not warranted," for example, the public sector or in court.

Oppression instead of freedom

People all over the world suffer from a lack of religious freedom, even although 170 countries have ratified the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance," reads article 18 of the Human Rights Declaration.

"In the past, it was the rule that religious freedom was compromised by governments, meaning by politicians," says Volker Kauder, a German Christian Democrat (CDU) politician and parliamentary group leader of Merkel's ruling conservative CDU/CSU faction. "Now, religious freedom is massively restricted with the use of violence whenever a state no longer functions or is no longer willing to stand up for religious freedom." This particularly holds true for parts of Africa and Asia.

Parliamentarians get involved

Kauder has devoted over 10 years to this subject - at first, he started with the persecution of Christians. He has changed his viewpoint over the years. "Now, Christians are not the only ones affected, even though they are the largest group in terms of figures."

The CDU politician is a member of the "International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief" that was founded two years ago in Oslo as an informal network. Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Yazidis and Christians of all denominations have come together in the group, comprised of over 100 members of parliament from around 80 countries. They are currently meeting in Berlin for their second international conference.

The parliamentarians have one thing in common: their desire to get involved. They send advocacy letters to governments and pay visits to countries where religious freedom is at risk. "Of course it looks completely different when an international parliamentary conference with representatives from all religions and not just Christians arrives," says Kauder. He believes that the visits have actually made a difference. "Even in a dictatorship, no one wants to be portrayed as a persecutor-country."

Advocacy letters throughout the world

Conference participants in Berlin will send letters to Sudan and Myanmar. Since 1982, Muslims and Christians in Myanmar have systemically been deprived of their citizenship. They are forced to provide a family tree dating back to 1823, tracing familial origin to pre-colonial times. Whoever cannot submit this information is denied identity documents. Buddhists are not obligated to fulfil such criteria. A former member of parliament in Myanmar, U Shwe Maung, has reported a marked increase in violent attacks on religious minorities in recent years. As a Muslim, he barely has any rights in his country.

Asiya Nazir, a Pakistani Christian and parliamentarian, also does not have much good news from her country. Prisons are full of people who have been accused of "religiously related offenses." The Pakistani Penal Code contains a blasphemy law. In practice, it allows unwanted people and religious minorities to be eliminated or put under pressure due to neighborhood feuds, political strife or economic disputes. A general mood of distrust and intimidation has developed, stoking the violence, says Nazir.

A demand for more integration

The Pakistani parliamentarian has a message for Germany that relates to her personal experience. "Keep an eye on your integration policy, keep an eye on how the people coming to your country integrate into society," she urges. She said the refugees have no clue about German values. "They need to understand them," states Nazir.

Vian Dakhil, a member of parliament and Yazidi from Iraq, expresses similar views. She is concerned about what will happen when radical Islam from the Middle East reaches Europe. "The mentalities are simply different and there are people who say, 'when someone is not a Muslim, I must kill them.'" Both women look serious. "We don't want Europe to go through what we had to go through."