Germany's many Muslim groups plan to unite under one umbrella in an effort to ensure that Islam can be taught in public schools, better integrating children and combating the influence of fundamentalists.
"It is vital to resolve this problem and ensure that Islam can be taught in German in schools," said Nadeem Elyas, president of one such group, the central council of Muslims, after a meeting of Muslim groups in Hamburg, northern Germany last weekend.
"If we don't, the next generation of Muslims will grow up without values, and if they don't get their religious education in schools they risk being influenced by bad interpretations of the Quran," he added.
A need for integration
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been increasingly keen to improve the integration of Germany's Muslims, particularly with overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey preparing to start talks to join the European Union.
Only last month, two Egyptian imams were banned from the country under new legislation aimed at so-called "hate preachers" suspected of trying to spread extremist ideologies.
Religious courses for the estimated 600,000 Muslim children living in Germany are guaranteed under its constitution, the Basic Law. But the law provides only for the beliefs of "religious communities" to be taught in public schools and given the division of the Muslim community here, the Quran has not been accepted in the classroom.
With education in Germany controlled by the 16 states, the federal government has sought to avoid the issue. In the most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, the authorities have for the last decade refused to allow Islam into the classroom because, they say, the main Muslim groups do not represent the entire community.
"We plan to create a unified and democratic structure at the federal and state level," said Elyas.
"Within a year, we will announce the project at every mosque and organization," Elyas said.
Some snub the idea
However the biggest group in Germany, the Turco-Islamic Union (DITIB), representing an estimated 150,000 Muslims, appears to be snubbing the project.
In Bavaria, Islamic instruction classes were set up in the 1980s but were only available in the Turkish language. Similar efforts were made in Schleswig-Holstein and the city-states of Hamburg and Berlin.
A promising experiment
Since August 2003, Muslim associations in Lower Saxony have come together under a Shura (council) to work out how to interact with the authorities and structure courses in Islam.
"The experiment has been promising," said Bernd Knopf, a spokesman at the federal office for integration. But an estimated 4,500 religious instructors will probably be needed.
"The problem is that we can't massively bring thousands of teachers into the country from one day to the next," said Knopf.Some teachers are being trained in Turkey under an accord between universities from both countries, but in Germany itself the first-ever faculty aimed at completing such a task was only opened last year.
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