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Germany

Pushing for Islam in German Schools

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.

Some German schools already offer Islamic classes in German

"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.

Islamist demonstrators in Düsseldorf

Legal moves have also been launched to crack down on fundamentalists in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, in which Germany was an unwitting rear-base for some of the suicide hijackers.

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.

Constitutional guarantees

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.

Visitors to a mosque in Gelsenkirchen during an open day last year

Muslim groups in Germany define themselves by the number of mosques under their jurisdiction, rather than by the number of people who are signed up as members, whereas the law only takes membership into account.

Berlin hesitates

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.

A woman wears a head scarf in Germany's National colors of black, red and gold

He said six groups, accounting for around 70 percent of Germany's Muslims, would join forces to have their religion taught in public schools.

"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.

Men sit in the tea room at a DITIB mosque in Berlin

The need for momentum is great. For a few years, Muslims in some states have been trying to mount initiatives of their own but without great success.

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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