Religion or ice cream? Berlin votes on teaching pupils faith

Religion or ice cream? Berlin votes on teaching pupils faithBerlin  - Religion and school are two subjects that don't sit comfortably side by side in Berlin.

In contrast to most of Germany, pupils in the capital do not attend compulsory religion classes. Instead, Berlin's children can opt for extra-curricular lessons in their faith.

Ethics, on the other hand, was introduced as a core school subject in 2006, in the wake of a so-called honour killing within Berlin's Turkish community which raised questions about faith and moral values being instilled in the young.

Faith groups have long argued that few pupils are opting for the marginalised religion classes, while the pro-ethics lobby says it's important in a multicultural city like Berlin for children to confront their differences head-on.

In April, Berlin's residents are due to vote on a proposal to place religion and ethics on an equal footing, meaning pupils could choose between the two, but would have to attend one or the other.

In Berlin, once described by sociologist Peter L. Berger as the "world capital of modern atheism," around 65 per cent of residents say they don't belong to a religious community.

The city, with approximately 400,000 foreigners, many of Turkish origin, is also considered one of Germany's most multicultural.

Both sides in the current debate are using Berlin's diversity to argue their corner.

The 2005 murder, by her brother, of Hatun Surucu, a young Turkish woman who had opted for a secular lifestyle, prompted questions in Berlin about ways to impart values that transcended religion.

At the time, Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit said, "Diversity is called for, not separation." Six months later, ethics was made compulsory for all 14- to 17-year-olds at the city's schools.

Berlin's Education Senator Juergen Zoellner said, "In this subject it's about jointly discussing values."

"The policy has also been our way of integrating young Muslims into our society," the senator told the German Press Agency dpa.

On the other side of the debate sits the Pro Reli campaign, which brought the issue to the table by collecting enough signatures to force a referendum on the status of religion in Berlin's schools.

Pro Reli leader Christoph Lehmann says religious education is suffering as a result of the pressures of a packed curriculum and the marginalised status of the subject.

Since religion is an optional extra, Lehman said, pupils are faced with "the choice between religion classes and the ice cream parlour."

The professional lawyer sees a danger in the fact that children are not taking the opportunity to build on the basic tenets of faith, imparted by their parents and community.

"Religion is problematic when it is kept on the level of childhood belief," Lehmann said, adding that, "knowledge about one's own religion can work wonders to counter radicalisation tendencies."

"It is important, specifically in such a multicultural society, to take everyone seriously in their own religious identity," Lehmann told German Press Agency dpa.

Michael Bongardt, the head of the Institute for Comparative Ethics at Berlin's Free University, says the debate is also about the role of school in preparing pupils for participation in adult society.

In Germany, the theologian said, there is a strong expectation that school "should prepare for a life in this particular society."

"I see ethics as the subject in a school in which one can think about how a democratic society works," Bongardt said in an interview.

Zoellner also believes ethics has a crucial role to play.

"Everyone who doesn't attend ethics classes is, in my opinion, a lost cause with regards to the state's duty to integrate," Berlin's education senator said.

Lehmann thinks the two weekly ethics lessons are not the ideal place to tackle such issues. "People are expecting an unbelievable amount of these two hours," the Pro Reli campaigner said.

He says teachers are often not able to introduce pupils to a range of world religions, as well as discussing the basic values on which society is based, as intended by the curriculum.

Furthermore, he believes school itself is already allowing young people of different faiths to meet and confront each other.

In state schools, where pupils are jointly educated, Lehmann said, "the meeting, the exchange, certainly takes place."

If the referendum on April 26 returns a majority for the Pro Reli campaign, the cost of integrating religion into the curriculum is estimated at around 5 million euros (6.8 million dollars).

"I know very well that our value system is shaped by Christian religion, and I support that," Zoellner said.

But without ethics as a compulsory subject, he added, schools would no longer have a common place where the values rooted in Christianity and humanism could be imparted to others. (dpa)