Παρασκευή, 24 Απριλίου 2009

A CULTURE CLASH IN BERLIN


Referendum Pits Ethics against Religion
It's an issue that has split Berlin right down the middle. Should ethics be compulsory at school and religion an optional course, or should there be a clear choice between the two? In the increasingly bitter campaign ahead of Sunday's referendum both sides claim they are defending freedom of choice. Christoph Lehmann looks repeatedly at his cell phone. His next appointment is in 20 minutes, and the TV interview went on longer than planned. Even though he's under enormous pressure, he remains calm and speaks thoughtfully. He wants to convince people -- after all he has a mission: The Berlin lawyer and politician with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) is campaigning for a school subject that already exists -- religion. Lehmann is heading a campaign to have it changed from an optional subject in Berlin's schools to a core part of the curriculum. An issue that may seem at first like a simple administrative change has evolved into a burning question of principle in Berlin. It has turned into a political dispute that has all the markings of a clash of civilizations. With Berliners voting on the issue in a referendum this coming Sunday, the city looks as if it is in the midst of an election campaign. Posters line the streets, the radio is full of ads, Berlin newspapers have special sections devoted to the issue, while politicians, actors, sports and TV stars are being recruited by both sides to back their cause. Since 2006, ethics has been a compulsory subject for all high school students in Germany's capital city, while religion is an optional course. The "Pro Reli" campaign wants to change those rules so that pupils would have to choose between ethics and a faith-based religion class. Those classes would be strictly divided along religious lines, with Protestants, Catholics and Muslims being taught separately. Pro Reli has the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, which is in the opposition in Berlin's city government, and the Christian churches.
A Question of Freedom
Pro Reli chairman Lehmann stands patiently at the information stand in the well-to-do suburb of Friedenau, smiling at the cameras and shaking hands. He has managed to turn a dispute about one school subject into a huge issue and a massive campaign. The word "Freiheit," or freedom, is written everywhere. It's Lehmann's favorite word, and it defines his strategy. His argument boils down to this: Anyone who has to decide between ethics and religion has the freedom to choose. Lehmann gives a few more words of encouragement to campaigners distributing flyers and then he's off to his next appointment. A few kilometers away, in the western Berlin district of Charlottenburg, Walter Momper, a member of the Social Democrats and president of the Berlin state parliament, is doing pretty much the same thing as Lehmann: handing out brochures, speaking to passersby and journalists, but with the exact opposite aim. What Lehmann calls freedom, he describes as being "forced to choose."

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