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Interreligious Learning Process – The Future of Christian-Muslim Dialogue is Joint Action

Written by Volker Meißner & Ernst Foerster
March 27, 2015

by Volker Meißner, translated from German by Ernst Foerster
This article was originally published by Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2010, P. 149-153. The English version was published by Con-Spiration.
In their services and facilities ecclesiastical charities increasingly care for members of other religions, especially Muslims. They are looking for co-operation with mosque associations and employ also Muslims. Little attention has hitherto been given to this potential for the Christian-Muslim dialogue.
When Navid Kermani on 26 November 2009, after the controversy over his statements about the Cross, at last together with the former Church President Peter Steinacker, Cardinal Karl Lehmann and Salomon Korn, Vice-president of the Central Council of Jews received the Hessian Culture Prize, he donated the prize money to social projects of the parish St. Theodore in Cologne-Vingst. Kermani, who in his speech of thanks first dealt with the debate that had preceded the award ceremony, with this gesture went from the field of theological dialogue over to the dialogue of action, from theory to practice.
In retrospect, he admittedly regarded also the debate about his wording in the essay about the Crucifixion painting by Guido Reni, with its partly sharp tones, as a constructive contribution to the dialogue of religions. However, Kermani thought that he could give a clear “signal of understanding and reconciliation” precisely by supporting the Catholic parish in its commitment to the district. You see, that is where interfaith dialogue is lived day by day not by exchanging theological opinions and by assuring one’s peacefulness but by caring for people, no matter what religion they belong to, by people, no matter what religion they belong to.
Not only within the Churches but also in the field of Caritas and Diakonia many persons in charge are likely to have heard this with particular interest. For they become here increasingly aware of the fact that the intercultural opening, which also on the part of the Churches has for years been described as a development task in the welfare and health system, has also a specific interreligious dimension.
The social commitment of the Catholic parish in the district of Cologne-Vingst, which admittedly goes back to a church initiative but is not limited to Christians, neither with regard to the helpers nor to those who receive help, and brings thus religions and cultures together, is not an isolated case. It is due to a number of developments that the ecclesiastical charities in their services and facilities take care of more and more members of other religions, especially Muslims, and that they seek cooperation with mosque associations and employ Muslims.
In the days when immigrants were regarded primarily as “guest workers”, the charities had agreed on a division of the various groups of foreigners along religious boundaries. The Caritas was responsible for the care for migrant workers from the Catholic recruitment countries Italy, Spain, Portugal and Croatia, the Diakonie for the Orthodox Greeks, and the Arbeiterwohlfahrt for the Muslims from Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey. This specialization in certain language groups was reasonable as long as one dealt with a manageable number of countries of origin, and the return of foreigners after a few years was expected. This has resolved itself and does no longer apply, due to the realization that Germany is a country of immigration. The specialized services of the welfare agencies for migrants have become agencies for integration, which are to orient their work towards the respective social area and support the usual services [Regeldienste] in the inter-cultural opening (see this issue, 139).
Especially in the case of Muslims, their assignment to the advisory services of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt has always been in tension with the principle of the right of choice of those seeking help. If there are no Islamic advice centers many devout Muslims – provided they do not belong to extremist groups – often choose deliberately services and facilities of the Churches. They rather trust them than secular providers, because they see among Christians the relation with the one God and a common value base. This has always applied to church day care centers and partly to denominational facilities for handicapped people. And where the local hospital care is guaranteed by religious institutions, Muslim patients are nothing new.
Caritas Provides its Services Regardless of Religion
Especially in the old West German states migrants and among them Muslim immigrants make up now in many cities and towns a growing part of the population, whereas the proportion of local inhabitants and thus of the Christians is falling. Apart from the move of German families from districts with disproportionately large immigrant populations, this is due to the fact that currently the number of migrants through the generations remains the same, wheras the group of “Germans” is getting smaller and older. Also this development causes a rise in the number of migrants and Muslims among the potential users of charitable services and facilities. These have the choice to open up more to such users, or either to reduce their services or to close.
But a reduction of charitable services and institutions that is oriented towards the decline in the proportion of Christian population would be in clear contrast with the guiding principle of Caritas. There it says that Caritas provides its social services regardless of religion, ethnicity, and political attitude of those concerned; and that it is oriented towards the needs and problems of those in need (see this issue, 141 et seq.)
All social indicators, however, suggests that especially in cities and districts with many migrants grave problems exist. A concentration on Christian users would also run counter to the goal of intercultural opening, according to which the services and facilities are to be organized in a way that allows everybody access, irrespective of their cultural socialization due to descent, religious or ideological conviction, personal attitude and lifestyle (Vielfalt bewegt Menschen. Interkulturelle Öffnung der Dienste und Einrichtungen der verbandlichen Caritas. Eine Handreichung, edited by Deutscher Caritasverband, Freiburg 2006, 7).
Such a retreat would ultimately exacerbate the processes of social segregation in the cities and make thus the talk of the Church’s commitment to integration implausible.
Last but not least, we must not forget that the politically intended introduction of competition in the area of social services and healthcare has the result that Caritas has to maintain its position on the market. Apart from all contentual reasons, also from a business point of view one can hardly do without non-Christian users in order to remain competitive and to be present there as an ecclesiastical institution.
Other points of contact with other cultures and religions result from the fact that Caritas is mainly oriented towards the social field in urbanized areas. As e.g. in Duisburg, central offices with specialist departments are more and more replaced by Caritas centers that are localized in districts and where all in-patient and out-patient facilities and services as well as the various counseling services are brought together. In consultation with the municipality, other Caritas associations work in a quarter or district for a specific area, as e.g. in Gelsenkirchen the “Neustadt-Treff”. The special service Gemeindecaritas (Caritas work on the level of parishes) discovers more and more the local lebensraum as a task of social policy making.
These approaches go beyond the traditional casework; they use or activate the resources in the social area and address all people who live in the district and the institutions that are located there. Especially in quarters where urban-planning, economic, and social problems concentrate and such projects are most needed, the proportion of immigrants and of the Muslim population is high. In addition to schools, sports clubs and parishes here often several mosque associations belong to the social actors that must be won over to form social networks, and if necessary as access paths for professional assistance.
Cooperation with Mosques
The vast majority of mosque associations in Germany have always been caring not only for the prayer, the arrangement of religious festivals and the religious education in Koran courses but perform a variety of social tasks for the Muslim migrants. They are places of outstanding volunteer commitment (see Dirk Halm und Martina Sauer, Freiwilliges Engagement von Türkinnen und Türken in Deutschland. Projekt der Stiftung Zentrum für Türkeistudien im Auftrag des Bundesministeriums für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend, Essen 2005,
Members of executive boards and prayer leaders report that they are striving to build youth groups, and that they are repeatedly addressed when social problems as e.g. unemployment and debt or issues related to schooling and education arise in families. Meanwhile, there are women’s groups and homework help, and language and even integration courses take place in mosques. All this shows that the mosque associations, in addition to other self-help organizations of the migrants, have a significant social capital at their disposal. Until now it is admittedly integrated very seldom into the municipal networks and can be interlinked with the Caritas’ work in the districts. In the context of “tandem projects” the cooperation of charitable organizations with migrant organisations is given targeted support inter alia by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
A particularly sensitive issue is finally the employment of members of other religions in Caritas institutions. On the one hand, many persons in charge find it difficult to recruit non-Christian employees, because they fear to jeopardize thus the churchly profile. On the other hand, a survey of the German Caritas Association in 2006 showed that more than two thirds of the charitable institutions and providers have non-Christian employees. Even though no figures are available which give information on the proportion of non-Christian employees in the various facilities and on the affiliation to different religions resp. on the number of those who belong to no denomination, it is not about a few individual cases.
A specific survey of 2005 showed that in the Ruhr district 11 of 12 hospitals and 16 of 22 of old people’s and nursing homes have Muslim employees. The proportions of Muslims ranged between 1.9 and 8 per cent. In many places multi-religious staff are already a reality, particularly in hospitals, old people’s and nursing homes, home care services and hospices. But even in the field of counselling Muslims work in Caritas facilities.
In that survey, the German Caritas Association asked about the reasons that led to the recruitment of employees who belong to another religion or no religion at all. Frequently, technical and conceptual aspects were mentioned. One expects that by employing non-Christian and religiously indifferent colleagues the access barriers for people of different religious backgrounds are reduced and the intercultural competence of other employees is promoted.
Besides, the providers see the opening of their teams for non-Christian employees as a concretization of the Church’s mission and a realization of the guiding principle of Caritas. Multi-religious teams show clearly that the Church stands for peaceful coexistence of religions, and that Caritas wants also as employer to make an active contribution to integration. Finally, persons in charge tell with increasing frequency that the procuring of qualified staff especially for nursing services, old people’s homes and hospitals is becoming increasingly difficult in some areas. Also in the old West German states a restriction on the Christian candidates can therefore often not be kept up.
The interreligious dialogue is realized in everyday life not only in the parish St. Theodor in Cologne-Vingst but in many fields of activity of Caritas. In many parts of Germany the charitable services and institutions become increasingly places of a vibrant inter-religious practice in the church. This applies at least when the encounter of religions is based on a comprehensive concept of dialogue, as it is done in the official documents of the Catholic Church.
Against this background, the development in the area of Caritas gives cause for hope. For what in the classical dialogue work of the churches, of Muslim organizations and Christian-Muslim dialogue initiatives is only managed with difficulty takes place here almost as a side effect. Besides small groups, also personal encounters and joint actions of Christians and Muslims are suggested, in which mutual confidence can grow. Moreover, the cooperation in the social area is in accordance with the target that is formulated in “Nostra Aetate”, the basic document of the Second Vatican Council for the dialogue of religions.
Does the Interreligious Opening Jeopardize the Catholic Profile?
Due to the interreligious opening, however, the Church’s charitable institutions and their employees are confronted with a number of practical and fundamental issues. There is often a great uncertainty, because one thinks that one is on foreign soil and that rather the theologians are responsible and competent in the field of the Interreligious. In some cases the employees feel overtaxed, because they have the impression that they, in addition to intercultural competence, must now learn another subject that has actually nothing to do with their professionality. There is also concern that just these professional standards would now be called into question. Does the opening for Muslim clients e.g. mean that the wife’s subordination, her “veiling” and perhaps even the beating that she gets by her husband, which are attributed to “the Islam”, have to be accepted?
The mistrust of Islam, which is often also found among Caritas managers and employees, is also the result of lacking contacts. Concrete reference persons are, as a rule, not known on the professional level and are hard to find in the variety of Muslim associations, which have neither at the federal and regional nor at the local level representation structures comparable to those of the churches. The fact that some groups are monitored by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution nurtures the fear of coming to the wrong partner.
Islam is often also seen as a religion that competes with Christianity. Persons in charge must then ask themselves whether an opening for Muslim users, a co-operation with mosques and the employment of Muslim staff amounts to a self-abandonment of the Christian church and a loss of profile. Many people have the impression that the Catholic profile can no longer be clearly recognized and that the distinguishing features of Christianity are endangered to get lost where the Church betakes itself onto the diaconal and interreligious field and really gets involved with others.
Is not lacking any unambiguity and discriminability, when e.g. in the Catholic kindergarten not only the religious meaning of Advent and Christmas customs but also the Feast of the Sugar is taught suitable for children, when in the Catholic retirement home the residents, in order to attend mass, are taken to the chapel by the Muslim nurse, who as an expression of her faith also wears a headscarf, when a meeting and consultation center of Caritas develops together with the Muslim mosque and the Alevi community offers for seniors in the district? Is not everything of equal value, and the commitment of the Church devalued then? Are Caritas facilities still localities of the Church then? And are the Muslim employees of Caritas able to be part of the church staff and to practise the “charitable activity of the Church”?
These and other questions are discussed at present in individual facilities and services, but not at the level of the Caritas association. The various publications of the German Bishops’ Conference and individual dioceses deal only with some of these issues. In the aid “Christians and Muslims in Germany” e.g. sections can be found about Muslims in Catholic hospitals and retirement homes (167-171, 226-234). With some examples there is illustrated what the “necessary respect for the differing religious convictions” of the Muslim residents and patients means.
Thus, the bishops think it imperative that the compliance with Islamic dietary regulations and fasting during Ramadan and the assistance of an imam or other representatives of a local Islamic community is made possible. In addition to that, hospitals are advised to make a separate room available to Muslims for the obligatory prayer. Some take the view that those who want to pray may use the chapel in a Catholic house. Often, instead of a Muslim prayer room a neutral room of silence is established. Relevant requests from the Muslim side are usually forwarded to the hospital chaplain, although they should be taken as an opportunity to rethink fundamentally what position the house takes up with regard to the religious needs of Muslim and other non-Christian patients, visitors and staff.
Where the Church really gets involved with the world in its complexity, in the course of processes of societal change it is necessary to reformulate guiding principles and conceptions.
The inclusion of the new religious diversity in this process does not mean a watering down of the Catholic profile, but its updating. The only alternative is the way back into the closed Catholic world. The concern that such processes would make the employees feel uncertain about their religious identity can be countered by the good experiences that also exist in multi-religious teams in the Caritas’ sphere of action. As a rule, an intensive exchange of views on matters of religion takes place there, because things that were formerly taken for granted, familiar and “not worth mentioning” are now questioned. The encounter with persons of a different faith and nonbelievers has in many cases the result that one becomes anew aware of one’s own identity, rethinks central beliefs, and becomes aware again of their life-shaping power.
Against this background, there is a growing need within the Caritas to acquire a specifically interreligious competence. When the Caritas of the Archdiocese of Cologne late last year invited to a three-day conference under the heading “Interreligiousness and Interculturality” more than 150 participants enrolled, many of whom did not come from the Rhineland but from other parts of Germany and neighbouring countries. However, such meetings and specific training courses are up to now offered only rarely. This is surprising given the fact that Caritas as a confessional institution has better qualifications for being aware of the religious dimension of cultural diversity and for dealing appropriately with them than religiously unmusical providers in the social and health care market.
Benefiting from Previous Dialogic Experience
The relevant aid of the German Caritas Association on intercultural opening, however, is characterized by a great restraint when it deals with religion and Islam. In the handout it says admittedly that interculturality had always an interreligious component. But this does not mean that every encounter with members of other religions was already an interreligious encounter (Vielfalt bewegt Menschen, 15f. [diversity moves people]). Since religion would never occur in a pure form but always in a specific cultural shape, encounter and dialogue between people were in the first place inter-cultural situations, and only secondarily they could become interreligious encounters.
Such formulations express the concern that the integration debate would again be narrowed to the topic ‘Islam in the field of intercultural opening’. Although this fear is understandable, it is not enough to subsume the religious dimension of the growing diversity in Germany under the concept of culture. Particularly in view of distorted depictions of Islam. But the persons in charge and the employees will only succeed in being aware of the differences and the mutual influence of culture and religion if they have a specific competence in interreligious dialogue. They must not only become aware of their own cultural but also of their own religious socialization. They must learn to be aware of the religious differences between themselves and others, and to deal empathetically, respectfully and non-discriminatorily with other religious beliefs.
Caritas can here benefit from the dialogue experiences that have now been gathered over the years in the institutions, academies, and initiatives of the Church. Here, one has learned that interreligious dialogue can only succeed if the respect for the faith of others is linked with the loyalty to one’s own faith. In the encounter with persons of other religions it cannot just only be about discovering things that one has in common. One has learned that mutual understanding grows especially when differences are taken as a theme, and superficial similarities (for example: Christians and Muslims have a holy book, Christians and Muslims fast) are understood in their specific, usually non-identical meaning, which they have in the context of the respective religion.
There is some indication that the Christian-Muslim relations in Germany will especially there gain a new dynamic, where the possibilities of cooperation in the field of social commitment are discovered, put into practice, and interpreted. Also from a theological perspective it is worthwhile to pursue this line. For Church documents emphasize, both with regard to interreligious dialogue and Caritas, the commonality with those people who do not believe in Christ, a solidarity that has its source in Creation and Salvation History. This is reflected in the church’s talk of a “ray of Truth” (Nostra Aetate, No. 2) and the “seeds of the Word” (Dialogue and Proclamation, No. 82) in other religions.
Thus, in their latest word about Caritas the German bishops can write that, according to Christian faith, no human being exists that, as image of God is not destined to accept the love of his/her Creator, to live out of it, and in his/her life to pass it on as much as possible to others. In this sense all men are called to participate in Creation (no. 18 f.). If that is the case, also the services and facilities of Caritas must not stop at those boundaries. They can rather help to put the inter-religious dialogue back on its feet. At any rate, in his speech of thanks to the Hessian Cultural Award Navid Kermani has reported that he had not read about the tolerance that developed in Christianity but experienced it in concrete terms: in the Christian hospital where his father worked, in the Christian home for the disabled where his girl cousin lived, and in the Christian kindergartens that he and his brothers attended.
Published with the author’s permission.