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POLITICS

Berliners vote on religious education

Berliners voted Sunday in a referendum on religious education in schools that goes to the heart of how Germany's sizeable Muslim minority is integrated into modern society, reports AFP's Simon Sturdee.

Berliners vote on religious education
Photo: DPA

Germany’s biggest city, described by one sociologist as “the world capital of atheism,” got a wake-up call in 2005 with an “honour killing” of a woman from the country’s Turkish community by her brother.

Shocked by how such a crime could occur in the capital of a country that aspires to be a modern, multicultural success story, its left-wing city hall decided that schoolchildren needed a lesson in ethics.

The idea was to foster common values in schools in a city where over 40 percent of children come from immigrant families, most of them Muslims, and nip dangerous radicalism in the bud.

Germany, which opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq but has around 3,700 troops in Afghanistan under NATO command, has managed to escape terror attacks by Islamic radicals but authorities say there is still a serious threat.

Following the honour killing of Hatun Surucu, the city introduced ethics classes in 2006-7 that all secondary school students – from whatever background – in Berlin have to attend.

But now, many people are angry and that rage led to 265,000 people signing a petition which forced Sunday’s referendum organised by a group called Pro Reli.

The group wants children to be able to opt out of ethics and take religion classes instead.

This is the case in most of the rest of Germany. Pro Reli – “Reli” being the nickname among German kids for religion classes – says that the whole idea behind the compulsory ethics classes is wrong-headed.

Learning more about Islam, not less – and openly, not behind closed doors – will help stop young Muslims turning into radicals, Pro Reli claims.

Leaders from other religious groups say children must be steeped in teachings from their own faith in order to understand the beliefs of others.

Supporters of the compulsory ethics classes counter that allowing children to choose between either ethics or religion lessons would split classes up and mean less integration, not more.

And they say that hot-button issues such as abortion, women’s rights and sexuality should be aired in a secular forum where all sides can be considered.

“Particularly when it comes to fostering values, children should not be separated on religious grounds and classes split,” according to a leaflet from the city’s ruling Social Democrats.

This “would be bad for integration in Berlin and bad for the education of our children,” it says.

The campaign has seen billboards plastered up all over Berlin – many of which have been vandalised – and it has drawn in celebrities from the worlds of politics, sport and entertainment on both sides of a lively and sometimes heated debate.

According to a recent survey, a wafer-thin majority – 51 percent – of people support a “yes” vote in Pro Reli’s favour, but high turnout is key for the result to carry.

Polls were due to close at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) with preliminary results expected around two hours later.

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POLITICS

Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

The last time Germany hosted a G7 summit, then-chancellor Angela Merkel produced a series of viral images with Barack Obama, clinking giant mugs in a traditional Bavarian beer garden and communing against a verdant Alpine backdrop.

Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

Her successor Olaf Scholz, hobbled in domestic opinion polls and of modest global stature, may struggle to match that convivial atmosphere when leaders gather again from Sunday.

The centrist Scholz, 64, assumed the presidency of the Group of Seven rich countries in January, just a month after taking office in Berlin.

Since then his handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation and energy supply complications have put his government to the test while sending his approval ratings plunging.

READ ALSO: Opinion – Scholz is already out of step at Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Scholz told parliament on Wednesday he was ready to seize the three days of talks at the Elmau Castle mountain resort – the same remote, picturesque venue Merkel chose in 2015 – to burnish Germany’s global image and the standing of the West.

“In Europe’s biggest security crisis for decades, Germany as the economically strongest and most populous country in the EU is assuming special responsibility – and not just for its own security but also for the security of its allies,” he said.

A series of summits in the coming days must show “that G7, EU and NATO are as united as ever” and that the “democracies of the world are standing together in the fight against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s imperialism,” Scholz said.

READ ALSO: Germany tightens border controls ahead of G7 summit

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Olivier Matthys

‘Merkel tradition’

Joachim Trebbe, a professor of political communication at Berlin’s Free University, said Scholz had a “huge opportunity” with the G7 to dispel any doubts about his leadership skills or resolve against the Russian president.

“At the start of his term and even when the war began, Scholz was quite reserved – perhaps a little bit in the tradition of Ms Merkel,” a
still-popular conservative the Social Democratic chancellor has sought to emulate, Trebbe said.

She also “tended to manage crises and didn’t pay much attention to informing the media at every step”.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit during a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 as part of the G7 summit.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 during the G7 summit. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

After accusations of foot-dragging, Scholz’s attempts at a reset were on display during a long-delayed visit to Kyiv last week, joined by the leaders of France, Italy and Romania.

A journalist from the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung travelling with the chancellor noted that he had a tendency to make gaffes under pressure – like “an old tap that either releases ice-cold or boiling water”.

‘Symbols’

His trouble finding the middle ground had led him to exercise too much caution when it came to sending weapons to Ukraine, or too little, as when on a visit to Lithuania this month he significantly overstated German arms deliveries.   

The chancellor, whose sometimes robotic style has earned him the nickname Scholzomat, has also found himself outflanked in his own unwieldy ruling coalition of his Social Democrats (SPD), ecologist Greens and liberal Free Democrats.

A poll this week showed that the Greens – with popular Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, both credited with clearer messaging on Ukraine — were leading the SPD in voter intentions for the first time since July 2021.

Both parties, however, are currently trailing the conservative opposition, which has relentlessly criticised Scholz’s Ukraine and energy policies as too timid.

READ ALSO: Why has Germany been so slow to deliver weapons to Ukraine?

Trebbe said that initiatives at the G7 bearing Scholz’s imprint on issues including future political and economic support for Ukraine, climate
protection and strengthening democracies worldwide were crucial if he hoped to gain political tailwinds from the summit.

But he said the gathering was nearly as much about generating images, such as the instant meme of Merkel, arms outstretched, explaining her world view to a nonchalant Obama, draped in repose on a wooden bench.

“That’s where symbols of unity, common strategy and strong leadership are created,” Trebbe said.

“I’m pretty sure Scholz has a team of professionals ready to take full advantage of that aspect of the summit.”

By Deborah COLE

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