07.07.08 08:25 Age: 4 yrs

Seesaw of interfaith cooperation: working together for peaceful relations in Cologne


"Do you know who I am?" is the title of an interreligious initiative that encourages people to learn more about their own and other religions, to overcome prejudices and to live together peacefully in Germany.


By Carmen Molitor (*)


"It's always good to see what can come of an idea," says Rev. Barbara Rudolph, executive director of the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK). On this beautiful summer Sunday, she is delighted to hear how the local project in Cologne of the campaign Weißt Du wer ich bin? ("Do you know who I am?") has developed. The nationwide campaign was launched by the ACK, the Central Council of Jews, the Central Council of Muslims and the Turkish-Islamic Union at the Institute for Religion (Ditib) and has, with support from the Federal Ministry for Internal Affairs, set up 120 local projects to promote greater interfaith cooperation. In Cologne, too, the seed has fallen on fertile soil.


Barbara Rudolph did not go alone to Cologne's Melanchthon Academy to hear the local organizers' report: she took with her the World Council of Churches' Living Letters - a six-strong international team that is visiting Germany seeking good examples of overcoming violence. The delegation was in Germany 27 June - 4 July, visiting projects working to bring the faiths together to achieve the aims of the Decade to Overcome Violence 2001-2010.


Hannelore Bartscherer, the chairperson of the local Catholic Committee, sees the seesaw as a good symbol for interfaith cooperation in Cologne: on a seesaw, sometimes you rise and sometimes you fall, but it's fun, and you need each other to get any movement going, she explains to the visitors from the WCC. It's fitting, then, that one initiative aiming to promote good relations in everyday life pays for a seesaw for a playground somewhere in Cologne each year and seeks children from all three religions to act as playground mentors.


The beginnings of Weißt Du wer ich bin?in Cologne were far more theoretical, with the ceremonial signing of a "Cologne Commitment to Peace" - a kind of charter of mutual acceptance and non-violence. It was the Catholic Committee, of which Bartscherer is the chairperson, that first took the initiative in this and sought partners among the city's Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. Not all local groups are involved in the initiative: Bartscherer explains that the Orthodox Synagogue had been invited as the official representative of the Jewish community, being the larger of the two Jewish congregations in Cologne; while out of all the many Muslim groups and organizations based in the city, only Ditib committed to the project.


The groups participating each sent one member to a planning committee, which grappled long and hard to formulate the text. Then, in 2006, all the groups, plus Lord Mayor of Cologne Fritz Schramma, formally signed the charter in the historic city hall. City hall was chosen deliberately, Bartscherer explains, as a neutral location of equal importance for all religions. This was the first time that Cologne's three major religions had spoken publicly with one voice, committing to peaceful cooperation. "I am so grateful for the trust that's grown among us through the project," says Bartscherer.


In Cologne, a predominantly Catholic city, different religions have always found a way to coexist. Christian pilgrims have been drawn to the remains of the Three Wise Men in the cathedral, Cologne's Jewish roots stretch far back, while the city today is home to 120,000 women and men of the Muslim faith. The different religions are rarely out of the spotlight of public debate - be it on account of the debates provoked by the trenchant opinions of the Archbishop of Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the mass protests by right-wing groups at the construction of a prestigious new mosque or the disputes over where to site a planned Jewish museum.


Pre-empting conflict


In order to pre-empt conflict, a round table known as the Council of Religions has been held twice a year in Cologne since 2006, as Dr Sonja Sailer-Pfister of the Cologne city deanery explained: "We wanted to strengthen communication, straighten out misunderstandings and set up some crisis management." The round table, which is based on a model from Cologne's sister city of Liverpool, does not discuss theological issues but provides a forum for talking over all important practical issues and to promote understanding of the distinctives of the various groups. A calendar of the festivals of all the religions has already been jointly compiled and made available on the city's internet portal. A book on religion in Cologne and a joint Religion Day 2009 are planned. According to Sailer-Pfister, there is also a desire to draw up a joint statement against Islamophobia. "We want to address people's fears," she said.


Recently, the planned construction by Ditib of a new, flagship mosque in Cologne's Ehrenfeld district has led to some heated debates. Hannelore Bartscherer said that Cologne was currently home to around 70 mosques, but almost all of these are housed in people's homes and back yards. The new construction was becoming bogged down in political debates that werefuelled, in particular, by the right-wing populist party ProKöln. "Legally, we can build the mosque [right away]," explained Ditib representative Hasan Karaca of the Research Centre for Religion and Society, "but for political reasons we have to be patient." He found it depressing that media reports were so often dictated by prejudice - as had happened recently, when a reputable daily newspaper had accused the builders of installing allegedly fundamentalist interior design.


Over two hours, the Anglican Archbishop of Burundi Bernard Ntahoturi, the Greek Orthodox theologian Aikaterini Pekridou, Thomas Yonker of the US denomination the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Janette Bächtold Ludwig from the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil, along with WCC deputy general secretary Georges Lemopoulos and the Rev. Sabine Udodesku from the WCC's Geneva office were able to build up a detailed picture of interfaith relations in Cologne. The "living letters" listened, asked penetrating questions and offered suggestions.


Archbishop Ntahoturi enquired about the position of African Christians and Muslims in cooperation between different religions in Cologne. Both Rev. Dr. Martin Bock, for the Protestant church, and Hannelore Bartscherer of the Catholic Committee admitted with regret that the African Christians had so far not responded much to invitations to collaborate locally and remained in some isolation. African and Arabic Muslims were primarily involved in the Central Council of Muslims.


Ntahoturi addressed the controversy around the building of the mosque in Cologne, asking how the Cologne group was dealing with Muslim officials who in their own countries were forbidding Christians to pray. Bock mentioned an idea of Cardinal Joachim Meisner which he believed to be a good one, to request permission to build a pilgrimage centre and a church dedicated to St. Paul in Tarsus, Turkey, in return for the mosque being built in Cologne. However, Gertrud Casel of the German Justitia et Pax Commission opposed the idea of setting preconditions in other countries for the building of a mosque in Cologne. "In Germany, we require freedom of religion for all," she said.


Georges Lemopoulos, the WCC's deputy general secretary, said there was a need to think outside the box in the fight against Islamophobia, and that it was interesting to talk with Christians in Muslim countries on the subject. "There are some successful models of cooperation over there that we can copy," he said, "as well, of course, as some we need to avoid." He thanked the people of Cologne for their honesty, and said that the issue of interfaith dialogue would remain at the very top of the WCC's agenda.


(*) Carmen Molitor is a freelance journalist working in Cologne for the Catholic news agency KNA and Reader's Digest Germany among others.


Further information on the Decade to Overcome Violence


Visit of the Living Letters to Germany


Project "Do you know who I am?"


WCC programme on interreligious dialogue


WCC member churches in Germany