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Germany plans state role in training imams

The German government wants more imams trained in Germany to help with Muslim integration.

Imams pray in the room of silence in the Reichstag on Dec. 3, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. In October 2008 the Muslim Academy in Germany launched a one-year training program for imams and chaplains in Berlin in close cooperation with the Berlin integration representative and the Berlin Islam Forum. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

BERLIN, Germany — In the coming year, Germany will likely experience a small, but unmistakable, crack in the separation between church and state — or, to be more specific, between state and mosque.

If all goes according to the plan proposed in February by a national education council, the German government will soon be involved in training imams to serve the country's Muslim population. The government would also have a hand in training thousands of educators to teach Islam in public schools.

Maria Boehmer, Germany's commissioner for integration, calls it “the right signal for integration” to German Muslims.

Those moves would bring Islam closer into alignment with Christianity and Judaism in its dealings with the German government. The country's authorities have long cooperated with representatives of the Catholic and Lutheran churches, as well as with the official institutions of the country's Jewish community, in designing curricula for schools and subsidizing the education of priests, pastors and rabbis.

By contrast, the country's 4 million Muslims (about 5 percent of the total population) organize their religious affairs independent of — some Germans say, dangerously isolated from — the influence of the state. The recommendations from the education council were motivated by concerns about equal treatment for the country's Muslim minority, but more so by concerns that Germany's hands-off approach with Muslims had hindered their integration into mainstream society.

There's plenty of evidence to support that view. A forthcoming study by Rauf Ceylan, an Islam scholar at Osnabrueck University in western Germany, draws troubling conclusions about Islam's shadow religious economy. Left to their own devices, Germany's Muslims have difficulty finding qualified imams to educate their children and guide their spiritual communities.

The main Muslim umbrella organizations that administer Germany's mosques require clerics to have some degree of formal education — unlike the small, independent houses of worship that may sponsor clerics with no theological training at all. But they must find those trained clerics at privately organized centers of Islamic learning that are preponderantly conservative.

According to Ceylan's study, only a small minority of German imams are fundamentalists who sympathize with radicals from the Middle East, but significantly more subscribe to interpretations of Islam that place them far outside Germany's ethical norm — and, in some cases, may undermine tenets of the German constitution. For example, Germany's guarantee for equal rights between men and women is subverted, some argue, by conservative clerics who preach on the duty for Muslim women to obey their husbands and avoid contact with other men.

So Muslims have looked outside of Germany for educators. A consistent source for modern-minded, theologically qualified clerics has been Turkey's Ministry of Religion. For more than 20 years, the German government has arranged for thousands of imams selected by the government in Ankara to spend up to four years attending to the spiritual needs of Germany's Muslim community, which is predominantly of Turkish ethnicity.