For some decades now, the nature of the relations between politics and religion in Germany has been the subject of profound mutations that are linked to secularization, to the growing importance of the so-called Konfessionslose, to religious individualization and pluralization and, most importantly, to the ever increasing presence of Islam. These evolutions, which tend to question the bi-confessional protestant-catholic balance that has for long been considered an essential dimension of German collective identity, shake up the representations of a society that has difficulties imagining pluralism and confessional neutrality without any reference to Christianity. Thus public authorities have to find political and legal means of reconciling the protection of freedom of conscience and religion, the principle of State neutrality, and equal treatment of all religious communities.

Reunification changed the situation of religion in Germany quite suddenly and significantly. The deepest change was the spectacular increase of people with no religious affiliation, unevenly distributed between the East and the West, a turning point and an unprecedented split in German history. Whereas in 1990, 22.4 % of the German population declared no religious affiliation (between 75 and 80 % in the new Länder), in 2014 this percentage had risen to 34 (29.9 % among catholics and 28.9 % among protestants, numbers provided by the Religionswissenschaftlicher Medien- und Informationsdienst REMID).

This increase in persons with no religious affiliation is the consequence of the numerous « Church exits » (Kirchenaustritte) in Catholicism and Protestantism; they have witnessed an unprecedented growth after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. No doubt, the ensuing religious tax increase played a decisive role, but these « exits » above all reveal a decrease of religious practice and belief, as well as a decline of Christianity in its institutional form. The number of « Church exits » reached record numbers in 1992: 361,256 for the protestant Church and 192,766 on the catholic side. These numbers have since stabilized at around 100,000 per year for the two largest christian denominations, before going up again. Indeed, in 2014 the protestant Church registered more than 266,000 « exits » and the catholic Church more than 217,000. This recent record number in exits from the catholic Church is probably partly linked to pedophilia scandals within Catholicism, especially in the Southern regions, where catholic bishops have been involved.

As a direct consequence of globalization and migration, there is also a clear diversification of religions. Today Islam is the second religion in Germany, after Christianity, with some 4 million Muslims. There are also nearly 1.3 million orthodox Christians, who are members of various national communities (Greece, Romania, Serbia, Russia, Bulgaria) and some 105,000 Jews affiliated with a community. This latter number can in part be explained by the influx of Jews from former Soviet republics. Finally, there are currently between 230,000 and 250,000 Buddhists, some 165,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, about 100,000 Hindus, and a large number of minority confessional groups, most of which are protestant (between 75,000 and 100,000 Baptists, 60,000 Pentecostalists and some 35,000 Adventists).

Dealing with religious diversity, and more particularly with the growing number of Muslims who live in Germany, is a relatively new challenge for public authorities. It notably raises the question of the monopoly situation in which Christian Churches find themselves as public law corporations (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts), a recognition they obtained under the Weimar Republic. Jewish communities, orthodox, pentecostalist and baptist Churches, or also Jehovah’s Witnesses (since 2006), equally benefit from this status, which guarantees full autonomy at the level of internal administration as well as institutionalized cooperation with the State. It also entails a series of rights and privileges such as benefiting from a so-called « Church tax » (Kirchensteuer), subsidies, access to the media, integration of theology faculties in public universities, and guaranteed confessional religious teaching in public schools (cf. art. 7-3 of the Fundamental law). Hence the religious course is defined as a mandatory subject in public education; the syllabus concerns the principles of religious communities and is taught under State control; the State ensures that the teaching is not in contradiction with the fundamental rights that are mentioned in the Fundamental law. In addition, there is a remarkable presence of Christian Churches in the field of charity, as well as in social and educational actions.

Since the 1980s, Muslim associations have tended to obtain institutional recognition, among other things in order to be able to teach Islam in public schools. However, such a claim can only be made on the condition that the association that makes it has been recognized as a « corporation of public law » or as a « religious community ». This presupposes that the association has a certain degree of organizational structuration, as well as a clearly identifiable exclusively religious dimension. Up until recently, such demands have been refused, in part because of the fragmentation among Muslim associations and the absence of a representative instance for Muslims in Germany.

It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that some Islamic federations were recognized as religious communities. This is the case for the Islamic federation of Berlin (IFB) — which does not represent all Muslims living in Berlin —, as well as for some Alevite communities. Even if it is estimated that they represent only about 13 % of all Muslims living in Germany, between 2002 and 2004 the latter have obtained this status without any judicial action in a number of Länder. This recognition might seem surprising considering that in Germany the Alevites have for a long time presented themselves as a cultural group with a preference for a secular orientation and less supportive of confessional religious teaching in schools. Clearly the recognition has offered the Alevites new opportunities. It points to the fact that public authorities intend to diversify the various actors responsible for islamic teaching, but it also illustrates the Alevites’ identitarian positioning, i.e. the fact that they emphasize their loyalty towards German values and institutions, thus benefiting from considerable ‘sympathetic capital’ and conveying a moderate image, at least in the eyes of public authorities and of the population. The facilities granted to the Alevites are probably part of a hidden agenda, as it would be of no surprise that by recognising the Alevites, German policy-makers are trying to influence Turkey’s discriminatory policies against them.

In 2013, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat community, an association that calls itself Muslim but has not been recognized as such by Muslims, has for the first time obtained the status of corporation of public law in Hesse, even though it counts only 35,000 members in the entire country. This choice might seem surprising, even incoherent, as they concern minoritarian communities that are situated at the margins of Islam. They once more seem to point to the fact that the differential treatment by German public authorities is not devoid of political interest, both domestic and diplomatic.

At the same time, between 2004 and 2006 laws banning female teachers from wearing the islamic veil in schools or public offices were passed in a number of Länder. On March 13, 2015, in the case of two female muslim teachers of German nationality who refused to remove their veil in school following a new law passed in 2006, the Karlsruhe Constitutional court revised its September 24, 2003 ruling. The judges opined that a global ban on facial veils for muslim teachers constituted an infringement of the principle of religious liberty as inscribed in the Fundamental law, and that a ban was only possible in case the wearing of the veil disturbed peace at school in a concrete manner, or if State neutrality was threatened.

In Germany, individual religious liberty is largely protected by art. 4 of the Basic law. In this context, a 2012 court case concerning circumcision has caused great agitation in muslim and jewish circles, where it was considered a violation of religious liberty. Consequently, a law that created a legal framework for ritual circumcision was passed on December 20, 2012, in order to end the months of polemics and legal uncertainty caused by the ban on circumcision for religious reasons, issued by the Cologne High Court in June 2012. At the origin was a circumcision performed on a 4 year old Tunisian boy in 2010; the boy had been sent to the E.R. following complications from the operation. The prosecutor had pressed charges against the doctor in the Cologne district court, which judged that the operation had been performed with respect for « the child’s well-being ». The prosecutor went on appeal before the High Court that had discharged the doctor, adding that circumcision represented « a bodily injury, liable to criminal prosecution », and an infringement of « a child’s right to respect for her/his physical integrity ».

Over the years, it seems that German public authorities have often given in to requests for collective rights by different confessional groups, notably Muslim, after court decisions. Such rights have been progressively aligned with those of Christian Churches, hence sometimes generating tension and conflict between proponents of equal treatment among religions and those who above all want to defend christian traditions and values. Thus the model of institutionalized cooperation between the State and christian Churches tends to be extended to other religious communities, whereas christian Churches’ prerogatives and privileges seem to be somewhat reduced; this leads to the “deconfessionalisation” of certain sections of public life.

Sylvie Toscer-Angot (Université Paris Est Créteil, GSRL-CNRS).

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