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Praying in the 'capital of atheism'

A landmark ruling has reopened the debate on the place of religion in schools.

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A landmark ruling has reopened the debate on the place of religion in schools.

For a city once dubbed "the world capital of atheism", Berlin has an uncanny knack for being at the centre of heated religious debates.

Earlier this year, it was the focus of the passionate, Christian-backed Pro Reli campaign that sought to reinstate RE as a compulsory subject in city state schools and oust the ethics classes that have replaced them.

But despite gathering hundreds of signatures, the campaign failed to mobilise enough support in the ensuing referendum. So RE remains an optional extra at state secondaries in "godless Berlin".

Now, religious passions are running high again, this time with a Muslim pupil at the forefront. The current debate follows a court ruling that will allow a 16-year-old Muslim boy attending a Berlin grammar school to pray behind closed doors on school premises once a day during breaks.

The pupil has been exercising his right to pray since March 2008 after a court granted him a temporary injunction pending the outcome of the main hearing in September this year. Brigitte Burchardt, the head of Diesterweg grammar in Berlin, where more than 80 per cent of pupils have migrant backgrounds, was against the prayer sessions, fearing the school could be inundated with similar requests from other groups.

But the court ruled that one boy praying would not disrupt the school day, nor contravene the secularism underlying education policy in all German states. "This is not about the freedom to believe that comes from within," the judge noted, "but the right to express that faith openly; for example, through prayer."

The ruling is significant for Berlin, where Muslim students make up more than half the pupils in certain city schools. It also marks an important milestone in German legal history; for the first time, the judiciary wrestled with the problem of how far the individual may exercise religious rights. The crux of the matter was to avoid any possible conflict between the religious freedom guaranteed by the constitution and the strict neutrality binding the state which affects all state institutions and forbids, for example, the hanging of crucifixes in public schools.

Now a national debate is in full swing, with one prominent Christian church leader saying he supports a Muslim pupil wishing to pray at a German school but that he hopes in Turkey, the pupil's home country, the favour will be returned and similar religious tolerance extended towards Christian churches.

Pupils were divided: one Muslim girl felt praying at schools "did no harm" while Jewish and Catholic students had no objection in principle as long as pupils prayed in breaks without disturbing others. A Muslim boy agreed, saying, "We're talking about a school and not a mosque."

Meanwhile, the authorities in Berlin plan to lodge an appeal since they fear the court ruling might lead to a proliferation of isolated religious groups throughout city schools.

No reason for that, says Muhammet Balaban, chairman of the Integration Council in the city of Essen, who has a simple solution. "Just make the school prayer room available to all religious groups," he suggested.

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