View from here - Praying in the 'capital of atheism'

6th November 2009 at 00:00
A landmark ruling has reopened the debate on the place of religion in schools. Frances Mechan-Schmidt reports from Berlin

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 which unsuccessfully sought to reinstate RE as a compulsory subject in city state schools and oust the ethics classes that have replaced them.

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.

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.

The ruling is significant for Berlin, where Muslim students make up more than half the pupils in certain city schools.

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 (forbidding, 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.

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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