Dilemma for Muslims in Berlin ; Some Parents Are Uneasy That an Islamic Group Last Month Was Put Charge of Religion Classes in Schools

Article excerpt

A ruling by a German federal court has opened the way for a controversial Islamic group to begin teaching lessons on the Koran to Muslims at Berlin schools.

In a country where religious instruction is a constitutional right, Germany's Muslims have long demanded the same recognition granted to Christians. Today, there are more Muslim than Catholic children in Berlin, a traditional stronghold of Protestant secularism.

"Islam instruction in the schools is a sign of equality. That's not negotiable," says Safter Cinar of the Turkish Association in Berlin. "We've been trying for more than 10 years to find a solution."

Last month, a court sanctioned the Islamic Federation, a group with links to fundamentalists in Turkey, to put together a lesson plan for Berlin's public schools. The decision renewed the debate over what role religion should play in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Thirty years ago, most Germans regarded Islam as the religion of Turkish Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, expected one day to return home. Instead, many stayed and brought their families. Ethnic Turks make up 2.5 percent of Germany's population and roughly two-thirds of the country's estimated 3 million Muslims. Other Muslims here come from the Middle East and Bosnia.

Article 7 of the German Constitution makes religion a regular subject at public schools; nonbelievers are required to take an alternative course such as ethics. Though technically exempt from Article 7, Berlin offers optional religion classes organized by the Protestant and Catholic churches. But Muslim parents have only had the option of sending children to classes offered by mosques.

In 1980, the Islamic Federation applied for permission to offer lessons on the Koran in schools. When its requests were ignored, the federation went to court for recognition as a "religious community" - and eventually won, much to the dismay of advocates of secular Islam. "We couldn't have written a better curriculum," Mr. Cinar says. "It's not an issue of the curriculum, but whether a political organization should be drawing it up."

Through its president, the Islamic Federation has links to Milli Grs, a branch of the fundamentalist Virtue Party in Turkey. Both the Islamic Federation and Milli Grs are under observation by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors radical groups. …