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Too Much Tolerance?

DW staff with wire reports (jam)June 22, 2007

Germany's highest-ranking cardinal has warned against indifference and uncritical tolerance which he says could lead to Islam enjoying equal standing with Christianity in the country.

Should they not have the same importance in Germany?Image: Fotomontage/AP/DW

Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who is head of the German conference of bishops, expressed concern about religious freedom leading to all faiths being treated equally regardless of the size of their flock and their history.

Germany's constitution obliges the state to maintain strict religious neutrality. But Lehmann pointed to Christianity's role in shaping European history and even its legal culture.

60 Jahrestag Kriegsende Berlin Gottesdienst Kardinal Lehmann
Cardinal Karl LehmannImage: AP

"The deep cultural connection between Christianity and our legal state, that goes back to the Middle Ages and before, cannot simply be ignored," Lehmann said in a speech in Karlsruhe.

Germany continues to struggle to integrate its 3.2 million Muslims, over half of whom are of Turkish origin, primarily "guest workers" who came to work during the country's postwar economic boom, and their children.

Integration problems

The government has been concerned about the potential radicalization of disillusioned young Muslims and organized an Islam Conference last year to try to help Muslims mesh with mainstream society. Germany has western Europe's second-biggest Muslim population after France.

The conference has made little progress so far on sensitive issues such as religion lessons, girls' participation in sports and the legal status of a new Islamic grouping.

Demonstration gegen geplante Großmoschee in Köln
Opponents of the planned mosque demonstrated in CologneImage: picture alliance/dpa

Lehmann's comments come amid a sensitive time for Muslim-Christian relations in Germany. The construction of a large mosque in the western city of Cologne has set off a wave of intense opposition among many local residents.

"I don't want to say I am worried, but I have an uneasy feeling," Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne said of the mosque in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio on Wednesday.

Meisner, who last year banned Catholic children from praying with Muslim classmates, said a real test of religious tolerance would be whether Christians could build churches and worship freely in Turkey, as Muslims can in Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, said in April she expected Turkey to take action to show it was tolerant of Christianity after the killing of three people, including a German, at a Turkish Bible publishing house.

Mixed reactions from politicians

Ronald Pofalla, the general secretary of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, said Lehmann was right to say Islam could not be afforded the same legal standing in Germany as Christianity, although he added no one should prevent Muslims from practicing their religion in the country.

Symbolfoto - EU-Beitrittsverhandlungen mit der Türkei
Some think the EU can't cope with a Muslim country such as Turkey as a memberImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

"Unlike Christianity, Islam is not in Europe's cultural center and is not reflected in everyday life in the same way," Pofalla said in a statement.

"Only those who are conscious of their cultural and social roots can freely and openly stand up for the rights of people of different faiths," he added.

But left-leaning politicians criticized Lehmann's statements.

The leader of the Green party's parliamentary group, Volker Beck, said Germany's constitution required Islam be treated the same as Christianity.

"The Cardinal is wrong if he concludes that Europe's or Germany's undoubtedly Christian character infers a legal discrimination of other religious communities," he said.

Lale Akgün, a Social Democratic parliamentarian in charge of Islam issues, said Lehmann was not looking clearly at the reality of life in Germany.

"Whoever says that Islam cannot be put on an equal legal footing (as other religions) is stoking social unrest," she said.