Visitors' programme "United in Diversity – Religion and Tolerance in Germany" | July, 2015

We need to live like brothers and sisters

Participants' feedback. By Sebastian Blottner

Religion, in particular religious fanaticism, dominates current public debate more than almost any other topic. As is often the case, the discourse is driven by negative headlines. Tolerance as a precondition for religion rather than a criterion for exclusion is rarely part of the picture, yet this was exactly what the "United in Diversity - Religion and Tolerance in Germany" visitors program was all about.

With its secular model of the relationship between religion and state, Germany has experience with a stable constitutional and political framework that acknowledges and fosters the diversity of religious communities. The visitors program aimed to make this experience available to an international group of participants from varying national backgrounds.

Many participants emphasized the organisation and the high level of interview partners at ministries, universities, or individual religious communities. "The variety of the program made it excellent," said Parham Mehraram, Expert at the judicial authority in Teheran. In addition to conveying experience and models from Germany, the participants found the internal exchange played an important role: "I have many, many thoughts to bring home because of talking to the other participants. Because the situation is very different in every country", said Kamile Rupeikaite-Mariniuk, Deputy Director for Research at the Gaon State Jewish Museum in Vilnius. Other participants held similar views and picked the debates up once again in personal conversations. "That the group was so diverse was one of the positive aspects of this week", commented Csaba-Ferenc Asztalos, President of the Council for Anti-Discrimination in Rumania.

Permanent impressions: visiting the Alevi Community in Cologne

Depending on their personal backgrounds, the participants were impressed with particular program points. The meetings with Rabbi Daniel Alter in Berlin and with the Alevi community in Cologne left Bishop Stephen Mamza Dami from Nigeria with a lasting impression. It was the first time in his life that he had the opportunity to meet either religious community.

Journalist Piotr Jendroszczyk from the Polish daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita particularly enjoyed current issues of journalistic value such as the construction of the House of One in Berlin: "This initiative to build one place of worship for three religions was highly interesting". One set of issues was of great interest to almost all participants: how religion is taught at public schools, including the associated academic training of teachers of religion at specifically created university departments in Germany. A historical and critical as well as pluralistic approach to religion is at the basis of this training. The first meeting of the program at the Humboldt University Berlin set the course for the ideas in the week to come. "I was very impressed with the meeting with the professor of the theologic faculty. The religious teaching was a good experience, we could apply to Vietnam, because Vietnam is also a multi-ethnic country and a multi-religious country", commented Doan Lam Tran, Vice President of the Vietnamese Publishers Association. "I found a lot of interesting issues about learning religion at schools. In Kosovo the state doesn’t allow it. So I’m going to use it when I go back and I will do a comparison to show how you deal with it here,” added Besiana Xharra, journalist in Kosovo.

From Theory to Practice: How is religious tolerance practised?

The participants in this visitors program did not need to be convinced of the fundamental idea of tolerance towards different religious communities as well as tolerance between believers and non-believers that is anchored in Germany's constitution. Nonetheless, the program offered a plethora of ideas, some of them unexpected, of how such tolerance can become a social reality. It was always clear that the German system cannot be simply transferred to other countries - especially not to countries such as Nigeria, which is suffering from aggressive extremism or to giant multi-religious states such as India or states such as China. "The situations in Germany and China are very different. In China you need to ask the government, no matter what you want to do. We don’t have enough freedom. Here in Germany every religion is very free," a Catholic priest from China summarized.

"We cannot just apply the model of Germany but need to pick up the problems we have and then look for a dialogue from our perspective," commented Dr. Kamile Rupeikaite-Mariniuk from the Jewish Museum in Vilnius, and added: "We have a tolerance center at our museum and we organize intercultural activities and intercultural dialogue and I would like to start now to organize something for an interreligious dialogue, too. That’s why this trip was very useful for me, to get an idea how it is done here and maybe to take some samples to bring back home and to apply."

"In India the situation is different", was the summary of the Indian journalist Javid Parvesh Kaniyathu Kudiyil, "there are so many religions, in Europe there are only a few. It is very difficult for us to bring all the religious parties to one table". The Nigerian bishop Stephen Mamza Dami sees himself confronted with even higher hurdles, as in his home country the terrorist militia Boko Haram is far from willing to enter into a dialogue:

Dealing with Islam or Muslims though for the most part not under such extreme conditions, is an ever-present issue not only for Bishop Dami. As this is such a topical subject, it was present in talks with other religious communities as well. Quite a number of participants received a very differentiated impression of Islam in Germany, beyond stereotypes and generalised prejudices which the Iranian legal expert Parham Mehram – nonetheless – also found in the German society: "I found a lot of stereotypes about Islam, I think German people should increase their knowledge about the Islam and Islamists and see different aspects of it to better understand it."

"Most Muslim organisations are really for integration, for dialogue and for peace, this is a very positive thing which I learned here," summarized Dr. Kamile Rupeikaite-Mariniuk from the Jewish Museum in Vilnius. After participating in the program, she now intends to implement an interreligious dialogue in Lithuania as well:

A comment by journalist Piotr Jendroszczyk showed clearly that a willingness to create a dialogue cannot be assumed in many countries: "There is an opinion the majority in Poland shares which says that in light of the problems with terrorism, it would have been better for Poland if we didn't have any Muslims in the country, because sooner or later problems would arise that are generally associated with Muslims, even if this is not true of course."

Kamile Rupeikaite-Mariniuk, Deputy Director for Research, Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum:

Even though Germany cannot offer a universal solution to all the problems discussed during the visitors program and itself is currently undergoing an intensive phase of positioning itself towards certain religious phenomena or phenomena associated with religion, the feedback showed: compared to other regions of the world major successes have been achieved with regard to implementing pluralistic thinking and tolerant co-existence of religions. Which is not least a merit of Germany's modern constitution: "As I understand there is no special legal regulation in the federal law, the regulations of the constitution are enough for the religions to exercise their rights and their freedom (Archil Metreveli, Georgia, Head of the legal office, Agency for religious matters at the Prime Ministry of Georgia)".

"You realize that you have to do something and your investments in this dialogue are very strong and very expensive but you realize that it’s necessary to do," said Csaba-Ferenc Asztalos, legal expert of the Romanian anti-discrimination authority, "for the different religious groups it is very important to have this stable constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of religion."

"What I feel is that Germany has a clear idea about how to deal the new issues of religion and the clash between religions," the Indian journalist Javid Parvesh Kaniyathu Kudiyil was convinced, "and after interacting with the different communities, especially the Alevi community and the Muslim federations and the Jewish community. I know that the majority in entire Europe wants to have peace. They want this peace and they want prosperity". The Iranian legal expert Parham Mehraram learned that Germany's state-guaranteed religious freedom did not ultimately lead to less cooperation between religious communities with the state but to better cooperation.

In conclusion, it can be said that all participants dealt intensively with the topic of 'interreligious dialogue' and were able to broaden their horizons in one way or the other - often seeing direct possibilities for application in their home countries. "I am part of 'Malaysians for Malaysia', we are actually dealing with all these issues. And it might be a coincidence but one of the things we want to focus on is unity in diversity. The program came in a very good moment for me. I am able to take back some of the analysis, the observations and most importantly the experiences of the people we met. There will be many instances where I might just be quoting from something I learned here in Germany," said Azrul Mohd Khalib, Acting Head of the RYTHM Foundation, Malaysia.

Javid Parvesh Kaniyathu Kudiyil, Chief reporter, Malayala Manorama, India:

The participants all seemed to agree on a fundamental consensus: not to give up hope for an understanding, and that there is no alternative to a peaceful dialogue. "Where there is no respect, it is always very difficult to live in peace and unity. Even though I was involved in interreligious dialogue before, my coming here has enriched me more so that I will be able to have a better platform for mutual understanding with my Muslim brothers," commented Bishop Stephen Mamza Dami from Nigeria summarizing his impressions.

A Catholic priest from China expressed in a nutshell something that sounds easy but is often difficult to achieve: "Interreligious dialogue is very important today. We need to respect each other's faith. We need to live like brothers and sisters".