4 - 2000
Islam in Germany
Openness to those of other faiths and keeping one's Christian identity
For a dialogue which includes witnessing to one's faith
by Eberhard Busch
Professor Eberhard Busch, University of G"ttingen, was moderator of the commission appointed by the EKD to study relations between Christians and Muslims in Germany, which prepared a substantial handbook.
"Living with Muslim Neighbours in Germany" - the EKD's handbook aims to encourage members and congregations of its member churches to do just this, and to help them with guidance and clarification. Encouragement and clarification are needed in the face of the alienation, ignorance and fears which exist in our society with regard to Muslims, even in Christian communities. But, as the handbook says, "there is no better way to overcome the rifts and the fanaticism that separate us than to take responsibility for friendly living together as neighbours, in mutual respect", which for us "includes the readiness to respect one another's religion". - So the church is speaking first of all to its own members. They have very diverse conceptions of how to relate to Muslims. Probably for some the handbook will seem too bold, while to others it will seem too hesitant. It is nevertheless not a compromise paper, but rather seeks to persuade Christians in a responsible way "to meet those of other faiths with conciliation rather than hostility", as "persons who deserve respect, not contempt, in their particularity and in their religious seeking". A hope also goes with the handbook that Muslims themselves will see in it an open hand held out to them, inviting them to share our life here in good-natured neighbourliness. And we hope that in this way the church is also performing a service to the whole society.
The handbook has three parts: a section on theological guidance for the encounter with Muslims, then an explanation of the legal situation of Muslims in Germany, and finally explanations on different practical situations in which Christians and Muslims have to do with one another. The theological section is the most important. It also contains the most difficult material, for its purpose is to make clear how we can preserve our belief in the Gospel while being open towards persons of another religion. This means following a path on which, on one hand, we avoid an indifference to our own faith which says that it all comes to the same thing anyhow, and on the other we refrain from shutting ourselves up in an ivory tower, from which vantage point we can either exclude people of other faiths or entrap them into ours. The handbook goes the middle way, on the basis that openness towards those of other faiths is based precisely on our own identity as confessing Christians.
Its central theological statement is that "Theological interpretation of non-Christian religions, as well as the basis and nature of encounters with them, must be rooted in the heart of Christian faith itself, in the very confession of the triune God." It then points out that precisely the belief in Jesus Christ, that which distinguish Christians from Muslims, in fact rather than separating Christians from them, actually places us close to them. For, it continues, in Christ God did not become "a Chris-tian", but rather a human being, through whom God loved the world and reconciled it to himself, not just the "world of the churches". "So we Christians encounter Muslims in the awareness that God's love and reconciliation are intended for them also."
The practical thesis of the handbook is accordingly that Christians living with Muslim neighbours learn to conduct a dialogue in which they become more conscious of their own faith, rather than becoming alienated from it. The dialogue thus includes mutual witnessing to one's own faith rather than excluding it. Thus dialogue and "mission" properly understood are not opposites. This principle leads to the methodical insight that in conversation with Islam, dogmatic statements out of context should not be used in comparison, in order to make judgements about Islam, but rather the other religion must be respected as a whole. If they tried a comparison, Muslims and Christians would make similar assertions that human beings are God's creatures, made in God's image. But in Islam there is no equivalent of the Fall; human beings need only the guidance of the law in order to stay on the path ordained by God.
According to Christian faith, humankind must be saved through God's intervention, in order to find peace with God and the fulfilment of God's will. What at first appears to be held in common proves to be different as soon as one takes a closer look. Instead, what is needed is "to see that which connects and that which divides within the overall picture, and to find a way of learning to understand the differences and to deepen one's respect for the other religion in spite of them". - The same principle points also to the position taken on the especially sensitive topic of sharing worship and prayer. Muslims, of course, cannot pray in the name of Jesus, and Christians cannot say the obligatory Muslim prayers in ritual purity. This is because of different understandings of God and of humankind. Therefore we should not be in too much of a hurry to mingle in worship.
The handbook argues in favour of so-called "multi-religious" prayer, in which Christians and Muslims offer prayers one after the other, each side according to its own rite. The sharing consists in each side's silent, inward participation in the prayers of the other. This is mutual respect, in which no one monopolises anyone else. Christians, however, believe in a God of grace, "who cares for the lost world and seeks to reconcile that which is divided". In this faith, Christians trust that God hears every prayer, even when we or others pray wrongly. For Christians and Muslims to pray for one another is therefore a positive thing.
I find the third section of the handbook, the legal one, very valuable for the information it provides. It shows that Germany as a religiously neutral state guarantees non-interference with the religious practices of all religious communities, but also shows that freedom of religion can only be enjoyed within the limits of the legal system. The status of a public corporation is based on complex cooperation between the state and religious communities. For Islam such a status is foreign to its tradition. However, both the large Christian churches have welcomed the efforts of Muslims living in Germany to organise themselves in such a way as to fulfil the conditions for being granted this status. - The fourth section on practical aspects deals with ten contemporary topics. For Protestant nursery schools, rules are proposed which imply inter-religious learning and the formation of the religious identity of Muslim as well as Christian children. The EKD to a large extent excludes the employment of Muslim teachers in Protestant nursery schools. For public schools, support is given for the establishment of "Islamic religious instruction" as a regular subject in the curriculum. The section on Christian-Muslim marriage deals with the practical issues leading to the marriage contract.
The areas of social conflict are also described, and also the opportunity for such partnerships to become areas for intensive dialogue. Church congregations should not pass judgement on such partnerships as betrayals of Christianity, and are reminded of their particular pastoral responsibility for them. There follow notes on considerate arrangements for sharing life and space in workplaces, hospitals, homes for the elderly, prisons and cemeteries. In the section on the building of mosques, the question of the public call to prayer is also discussed. Here the challenge is seen, "whether Muslims and Christians... can agree together to promote public peace and that degree of tolerance which all religious communities need in order to thrive, and which is needed for living together as neighbours beyond the bounds of religion".
In closing I would mention especially the words of the theologian Karl Barth which are quoted at the end of the text. In a true encounter, he says, people see one another, speak with one another, listen to one another and come to one another's assistance when needed - and they do it gladly. Yes, this is the sort of encounter which the handbook would like to encourage.
This article by Dr. Eberhard Busch, Professor of Theology at the University of G"ttingen, on the occasion of the launch of the EKD handbook, appeared on 11 September 2000 as an EKD press release.