World News

Crosses Go Up in Public Offices. It’s Culture, Bavaria Says, Not Religion.

Posted May 31, 2018 12:50 a.m. EDT

When the order came to hang a cross in the entrance of every state building in Bavaria, the mayor of Deggendorf was not particularly bothered by the religious symbolism.

Crosses are already ubiquitous in Deggendorf, a picture-perfect town on the Danube. There is one in his office and another in the room where town officials perform civil marriages. The fire station has a cross on the wall, as does nearly every classroom in every public school.

“This is about culture, not religion,” said the mayor, Christian Moser, adding that the separation of church and state was “a given.”

Actually, it is, and it isn’t.

Religion is in decline in Germany, but religious symbols are making a powerful comeback as part of the simmering culture wars playing out from Berlin to rural Bavaria three years after the country opened its doors to more than 1 million migrants, many from predominantly Muslim countries.

The order to hang crosses had come from “up high,” Moser said, pointing skyward. At least, in earthly terms: It came from Bavaria’s new conservative premier, Markus Söder, whose Christian Social Union is in a tough race before state elections in October.

Söder faces a stiff challenge from the far-right, anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany party, which has been gaining ground in wealthy, largely Catholic Bavaria and has been campaigning on fears of Islamization.

Deggendorf registered the highest vote for the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, in western Germany in last year’s national election. Critics say the cross initiative is at least in part a ploy to lure votes away from the far-right at the polls.

Söder (who happens to be a Protestant) has insisted that the “cross is not a sign of religion” but of identity and culture, and its display therefore is not a “violation of the principle of neutrality” by state authorities.

His argument echoes a controversial ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2011, which found that a publicly displayed cross was “a passive symbol,” not a form of “indoctrination,” and thus something European countriescould allow according to their history and tradition. Germany, after a high court ruling in 1995, has generally followed a rule that crosses can be displayed, unless someone is offended enough to challenge their presence. That rarely happens.

But critics say that the systematic display of a Christian symbol in government buildings inevitably waters down the separation of state and religion and could reinforce tension between communities.

Germany’s version of separation of state and church is less strict than those in France and the United States, but it is not quite the British or Scandinavian models either, where there is a state church. The Germans do something in between.

Söder recently made a point of personally fixing a cross in the reception area of the state house in Munich as cameras clicked away. “The cross is a fundamental part of our Bavarian way of life,” he said.

Fellow conservatives swiftly called critics of the decree “enemies of religion,” which was awkward when the archbishop of Munich became one of the more outspoken ones, accusing Söder of “instrumentalizing” a Christian symbol for political ends. Online commentators joked that Bavaria was turning into “Talibavaria,” a reference to the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban.

But opinion polls have shown that most Bavarians favored the initiative. And so officials like Moser have until Friday to put it in place.

The order to put up crosses comes at a time when other outward symbols of devotion are under threat in Germany. Berliners recently donned Jewish skullcaps to show solidarity with a young man who was wearing one when he was attacked by a Syrian refugee.

Meanwhile, a proposal to ban the Muslim headscarf for girls under 14 is gaining momentum in the multicultural Ruhr area in northwestern Germany. More than 1 in 2 practicing Christians in Germany believe Islam is not compatible with German values and culture, according to a Europewide survey published this week by the Pew Research Center.

It was just over a year ago that the interior minister at the time, Thomas de Maizière,declared: “We are not burqa.”

His successor, Horst Seehofer, a Bavarian, recently went further. “Islam is not part of Germany,” he said, even while conceding that the nearly 5 million Muslims now living in Germany are.

In places like Deggendorf, many seem to sympathize with Seehofer.

A former Bavarian premier with a towering stature and plenty of beer tent charisma, Seehofer visited Deggendorf in May and stopped by the annual spring fete.

Addressing a cheering crowd in dirndls and lederhosen, he described Bavaria alternately as “the promised land” and “paradise.”

Germany’s value system was “shaped by Christianity,” he said, before ending his speech with “God bless you all” — not a phrase commonly used by German politicians. Seehofer is interior minister but he is also the minister for “heimat,” a position he created in Bavaria five years ago and now wants to export to the whole country. Heimat is a fuzzy but evocative German term roughly meaning home, identity and belonging.

For many here it is also synonymous with Christian heritage.

“The cross is part of who we are; it provides strength and safety,” said Hans Reichhart, secretary of state for heimat in Bavaria.

“People are unsettled by globalization,” said Reichhart, a former judge who had a cross in his courtroom, too. “They are looking for an anchor and the cross is one.”

At the Robert-Koch high school, which only recently moved into a new building, two dozen crosses were blessed with holy water in an “ecumenical ceremony” in preparation to be hung at the school.

“Ecumenical” in Deggendorf means “Catholic and Protestant,” explained the school principal, Heinz-Peter Meidinger.

Every morning before class, high school students stand up and pray. A classroom prayer book offers something for every occasion. Just before a mathematics exam one recent morning, students turned to page 52 and prayed for “calm nerves” and “clear thoughts.”

“Maybe it helps,” said Meidinger, who led the prayer. About 7 percent of students at his school are Muslims, he said. They are expected to stand up during prayer but do not have to pray. “It’s never caused any problems,” he said.

Meidinger said the 1995 German court ruling, which found it unconstitutional to force schools to put crosses on the wall, had set off a near “rebellion” in Bavaria. Even the Nazis, who in 1941 tried to force Bavarian schools to take down their crosses, had quickly backed down in the face of local ire.

With the AfD, already the biggest opposition party in the federal government, looking poised to enter the Bavarian Parliament in the fall election, many see politics at play.

“This is not so much about where you hang a cross but where you make a cross on Election Day,” chuckled Ugur Bagislayici, a Turkish-Bavarian entertainer from the neighboring village who speaks with a thick lower Bavarian accent and is known by his pseudonym Django Asül.

Bagislayici eats Bavarian pork sausage and drinks beer from a giant mug like fellow villagers. When he had to choose between a Turkish passport and a German one, he went with the latter.

Bagislayici said that he, too, finds the cross comforting. “Maybe all those who speak in the name of offended Muslims should check what those Muslims actually think,” he said.

There are not many Muslims in Deggendorf, a town with just over 36,000 inhabitants. The Turkish community is small and long established: The first guest workers arrived in the 1960s and ‘70s, like Bagislayici’s father. Some of the 350 refugees in the local home for asylum-seekers are Muslims from Sierra Leone.

But even before the arrival in 2015 of hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees in Germany across the nearby border with Austria, people developed fears of a “Muslim takeover,” said the Rev. Martin Neidl, a Catholic priest.

“The fear is not rational,” he said. “But the fear is powerful.” When the local mosque was destroyed by floods in 2014 and the town council paid the Turkish community to build a new one, some German residents were appalled. When the new mosque ended up bigger than the old one, in part because of private donations, the opposition grew noisier.

“The minaret was too high,” said Beate Lausch-Bernreiter, an educational therapist who does tours of Deggendorf dressed up in medieval garb. “You could see it from the autobahn. It was competing with our church spires.”

In the end the minaret was shortened and local AfD politicians were quick to take credit.

Moser, the mayor, took his time deciding where the cross will go on Friday: a small stretch of wall to the right of the town hall reception.

“It has to be visible,” he said, “but also discreet.”