Bremen is the third German state to recognize Islamic organizations as official religious bodies. Holidays, funerals and pastoral care will be regulated by state contracts. Other states will likely follow suit.
For Erol Pürlü, spokesman for the German Muslim coordination council, the signing of the contract with the city-state of Bremen marked a "day of joy". Three Muslim associations were officially recognized as religious bodies. "That sends a clear signal that Islam belongs to Germany," said Pürlü.
Bremen is the third German state to confer this status on Islamic organizations. Hamburg made a similar agreement last November, while Hesse officially recognized two Islamic organizations and allowed them to offer their own religious classes in schools in December.
The relationship between German states and Muslim associations had been stalled for decades until the breakthrough came in 2010. Large organizations like the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) and the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers (VIKZ) had been campaigning to be recognized as religious bodies for a long time.
Among other privileges, the status gave communities the right to offer their own religion classes in schools. But for a long time the state governments resisted all applications, on the grounds that the associations did not fulfill all the legal and structural preconditions. In order to still offer Islamic lessons and create Islamic theological professorships at universities, "advisory councils" were created, on which sit representatives of the state governments. These committees take the place of a recognized religious organization and approve teaching appointments.
Islamic holidays recognized
Now Hamburg, Bremen and Hesse have all gone one step further, though in different ways. In the two city-states, three different Islamic celebrations are now recognized religious holidays. That means school children and employees can take the day off if they want. Officially recognized religious bodies also have the right to minister to Muslims in prisons, hospitals and other public institutions. Also, Muslims are allowed - within certain legal constraints - to build Mosques and bury their dead by their own religious rites - in other words, without a coffin.
Essentially, the state contracts merely bring together and summarize a number of regulations that have been in practise for many years. Little will change in the everyday lives of the approximately 130,000 Muslims in Hamburg and the 40,000 in Bremen. And yet for Pürlü, the contracts are more than just a symbol. The new holidays regulation, for instance, has given the Muslims a whole new freedom, he explains. "It is no longer decided at the discretion of the authorities or the schools or the employers," he said. "Muslims now have a legal right to a holiday."
The main aim: religion classes
The religion classes are particularly important for the Muslim associations, but the contracts made out in Hamburg and Bremen do not bring many particular advantages in this regard. In Bremen, religion is not an obligatory class in schools, while in Hamburg religion classes are general and address different faiths. For that reason, Muslims are putting their hopes in developments in Hesse, where more than 10 percent of Germany's Muslims live. In that state, the regional DITIB and one other organization are now authorized to introduce one religious class orientated to their faith.
According to Pürlü, Muslims are hoping that the Hesse contract will offer a springboard to North Rhine-Westphalia, where some 1.3 million Muslims live. There is already an Islam-oriented religious class there, which began in 2012, but it is still under the remit of an advisory committee. But DITIB and VIKZ and other Islamic organizations see this as just a temporary solution, says Pürlü. They want the NRW state government to recognize them as official religious bodies and then introduce religious classes without state intervention.
"If Bremen and Hamburg say the DITIB is a religious body, then it will certainly be more difficult for the NRW government to say it isn't one," said legal expert Heinrich de Wall.
More state subsidy
The new regulations in the three states do not give the Muslim organizations the same status as the Christian churches. Muslim bodies remain excluded from privileges like church taxes or civil service duties. Nevertheless, DITIB spokesman Bekir Alboga is hoping the new contracts will give the Muslim associations access to more public money to support their work, which is mainly done on a voluntary basis. Certain integration and further education services, as well as the training of inter-religious dialogue commissioners are already supported with public money.
"We really do good work," said Alboga. "But it has to be guaranteed and supported, not just through membership fees, which aren't enough to expand this work and make it more multi-faceted."
On the other hand, Muslim organizations cannot profit from state subsidies for kindergartens and social services, because they don't work in those areas. "Of course, equal treatment for the Islamic bodies would only come into question if the Muslims began operating more charitable and deaconal organizations, like the church-affiliated bodies Diakonie and Caritas," said de Wall.
More German states are expected to follow the example of Bremen, Hamburg, and Hesse and recognize individual religious organizations. Alboga believes that similar contracts are likely in Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, Baden-Württemberg, and Lower Saxony. Pürlü said that some negotiations are already under way, though he declined to say in which states.
The 28th edition of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is now underway, drawing tech, music and film innovators and fans from around the world to Texas. Edward Snowden and Neil Young are set to be event highlights.
The 2014 Winter Paralympics have begun in Sochi, Russia. Just one Ukraine athlete participated in the opening ceremony, amid simmering tensions over Crimea.
As the International Paralympics open in Sochi, it's difficult to focus on sports with events in Ukraine drawing Russia and the West into a political standoff. What do athletes and officials think of the situation?