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Grassroots effort boosts religion classes in Berlin

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Grassroots effort boosts religion classes in Berlin
Pro Reli organiser Christoph Lehmann. Photo: DPA
18:17 CET+01:00
Berlin isn't known as a very religious place, but as Mark Worth reports, a grassroots effort could soon bring God back into the city's classrooms.

A group wanting to make classes on religion part of the core curriculum of Berlin's public schools marked a significant victory on Friday. The organisation Pro Reli said it had submitted nearly 200,000 signatures to city officials – more than enough to force a referendum on the issue.

The grassroots group is working to overturn a controversial decision by the Berlin city government in 2006 to offer an obligatory class on ethics instead of the choice between ethics and a class on a pupil's religion – be it Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Islam. Such course are still common in other parts of Germany and Pro Reli claims Berlin is restricting a student's ability to study his or her faith.

“We live in a religious world. We know that people, including children, have religious needs and desires,” Pro Reli founder Christoph Lehmann told The Local. “Why should the state not help them?”

Such sentiments make clear Germany does not adhere to the strict division of church and state favoured in the United States and other nations. But Berlin chose to make ethics courses compulsory for pupils in grades seven to ten after a so-called “honour killing” of a Turkish woman. Students can still take religion classes, but they are electives on top of the core curriculum and enrolment has dropped significantly.

However, Lehmann started Pro Reli because he believes religion and secular, ethics-based teaching should be on equal footing. So the proposed referendum would ask Berliners to decide whether all public school students – not just middle-school pupils – should have the right to choose which classes they want to take, like in nearly all other German states.

With students already saddled with 35 hours a week of class time plus many hours of homework and extracurricular activities, Lehmann says expecting them to take an additional class before or after school is unrealistic: “It's a like telling a person in a wheelchair that they have the right to vote, but that the voting place is on the ninth floor of a building without an elevator.”

A lawyer and father of four, Lehmann has quickly expanded Pro Reli from a two-person organisation formed at his dinner table into a powerhouse movement spreading the word through ads, radio spots, and at kiosks in churches and on busy street corners. Local churches have conducted mass mailings to their members.

Among Pro Reli's endorsers are Pope Benedict XVI, Bundestag Vice President Wolfgang Thierse, Protestant Bishop Wolfgang Huber, Catholic Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky, television personality Günther Jauch and even Hertha Berlin footballer Arne Friedrich. The group is also backed by the conservative Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) and various Jewish organisations.

The main opposition to Pro Reli is Pro Ethik, which has the backing of Berlin's governing Social Democrats and The Left party, the Greens and the German Humanist Association. These are familiar players in debate. It was the left-wing city government that decided in 2006 to make ethics classes mandatory and it is the Humanist Association that is largely responsible for structuring them.

But agreeing on how to teach religion in Berlin is akin to trying to get cats to walk in a parade. The city's population includes about one-fourth Protestants, about 10 percent each Catholics and Muslims, small percentages of Jews and others. Half of the city does not have an officially declared faith. Looking at numbers like these, Lehmann, joined by many religious leaders, believes the solution is not to run away from teaching religion but to accept it is more important than ever.

Among those in agreement are Rolf Schieder, chair of practical theology and religious instruction at Berlin's Humboldt University, who has written and lectured extensively on the topic.

“Students will be much more able to understand other religions when they first have gained a good understanding of their own,” Schieder said in an interview. “We live in a pluralistic society. We have to be to identify with each other. This ability to understand how other people might look at the world is so critical for society.”

Ironically, a similar argument has been adopted by Pro Reli's opponents.

“Kids from different origins should not be divided into different religions and into different classes,” Pro Ethik spokesperson Gerhard Weil told The Local. “We find it is better if all children can discuss ethical problems together. This is in our main interest.”

Before Pro Reli's referendum can appear on the ballot, at least 170,000 of the signatures must be authenticated by election officials. If they are, the measure could go before Berlin's voters on June 7, the same day Germans go to the polls to elect their representatives for the European Parliament.

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