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Protone Symposium: Interreligious dialogue as a key factorfor the security of places of worship

Updated: Mar 27

As part of the EU-funded Protone project, the Dialogue and Education Foundation organised a symposium in Berlin that focused on the question of how religious communities can work together to create safe places for prayer and religious life. Interfaith dialogue is a key instrument in this.

The Protone Symposium in Berlin took place on 7 February with presentations by high-profile guests and great benefits for the participants. The EU-sponsored event took place at the Hotel Aquino, the conference centre of the Catholic Academy. Its English-language title was: "Security in Prayer: Creating Safe Spaces for Faith and Prayer as Part of Living Religious Freedom".

The Berlin-based Dialogue and Education Foundation, which organised the symposium, is also involved in the project. Other partners in the project are Fedactio (BEL), House of One (DEU), University of Leiden (NEL), Intercultural Dialogue Platform (BEL), Istituto Tevere (ITA), Religions for Peace (INT) and the Arco Forum (ESP).

The core objective of the project is to perceive and optimise the protection of holy sites of all three Abrahamic religions as a common concern. Christian, Jewish and Muslim organisations are working together to achieve this.

They exchange their views and experiences regarding potential threats and established security cultures. The promotion of interreligious dialogue should be a key factor in achieving a broad awareness of the issue of protecting places of worship and identifying examples of best practice.

Stable high level of attacks against religious sites Ercan Karakoyun, Chairman of the Dialogue and Education Foundation, emphasised in his opening speech how important it is to protect holy sites. This is demonstrated not only by the acts of terrorism that have become nationally known in recent years - from the massacre in Christchurch and the attack on the synagogue in Halle to the most recent terrorist attack on a Catholic church in Marawi in the Philippines.

In Germany itself, the number of attacks on churches rose from 106 to 118 in 2022 compared to the previous year, an increase of around eleven per cent. This is according to the statistics "Politically motivated crime in 2022" published by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). Most of these involved damage to property and propaganda offences. Only recently, there was an attempted arson attack on the Catholic parish of St Matthias in Berlin-Schöneberg - which was not the first of its kind.

The number of criminal offences directed against mosques rose by 14 per cent to 62, most of which involved damage to property and propaganda offences. In the vast majority of cases, right-wing extremists were held responsible. In 2022, offences against synagogues and anti Semitic offences as a whole declined. However, this was mainly due to the fact that these offences had reached a new high during the coronavirus period. Furthermore, without prejudging the BKA's figures, it can be assumed that there was also a significant increase in criminal expressions of antisemitism in 2023.

According to Karakoyun, the official statistics only show those incidents that were ultimately reported, and the number of unreported cases could be significantly higher.

Paul Weller: Holy places offer connection and a home - dialogue also involves others Emeritus Professor Paul Weller from the University of Derby made it clear that the Protone Symposium was held on 7 February for a reason. The peace researcher pointed out that the first week of February had also been declared "Interfaith Harmony Week" at UN level.

Weller emphasised the multifaceted significance of sacred sites for the people who pray there and for the communities as a whole. They not only preserve sources, teachings, wisdom or traditions - they also have a significant function as a community resource within local communities and neighbourhoods.

However, with the cultivation of interfaith dialogue, Weller says, more and more communities are realising that the security and feeling of being at home that religious sites provide also have such a function for other religious communities. This has led to the realisation that protecting the sacred sites of some also means protecting those of others - and that there is a shared responsibility to maintain places of worship, cemeteries and community centres as safe places.

Among other things, Weller cited the "House of One" in Berlin as an expression of such a realisation. The scholar also recalled his demand, formulated back in 2000, that European self-perceptions that exclude non-Christian religious traditions are historically distorted and politically dangerous. It was time to develop an alternative self-image, according to which "the Muslim call to prayer is as much a part of the sound of Europe as the Christian church bells".

Isabell Diekmann: Anti-Muslim racism as normality

However, the daily reality in Europe in general and in Germany in particular is different. This was also made clear by Dr Isabell Diekmann from Bielefeld University, whose lecture was dedicated to anti-Muslim racism in Germany.

She identified Islamophobia as one of several widespread forms of expression of group-based misanthropy that have their roots in a fundamental ideology of inequality. In Germany, its prevalence is characterised by a distorted perception of Islam and widely accepted prejudices about Muslims. According to a survey in 2020, 27 per cent of the population believed that the majority of Muslims approved of terrorist attacks. A quarter thought that Muslims should generally be banned from immigrating to Germany.

This figure of 25 per cent has risen to 38 per cent in just two years - in eastern Germany, where the proportion of Muslims is significantly lower than in the west, the figure is as high as 46.6 per cent. A similarly large proportion blamed Muslims for making them feel "foreign in their own country". While hostility towards Muslims in the west has fallen since 2014, it has actually risen in the east over the same period.

It is also noticeable that "Islam" as an abstract term is ascribed even more negative characteristics than "Muslims" specifically. However, this supposed differentiation is not necessarily reflected in everyday life, where it is specific Muslims who experience discrimination.

In Dr Diekmann's presentation, an illustrative example was given of a woman who had sent out three applications with the same content and the same initial photo for the same type of job, but experienced a completely different response - depending on whether she had introduced herself as "Sandra Bauer", "Meryem Öztürk" without a headscarf or "Meryem Öztürk" with a headscarf. The proportion of callbacks fell accordingly from 18.8 to 13.5 to 4.2 per cent.

This experience also coincided with the results of representative surveys and studies from Anglo-Saxon countries. It is likely to be a pattern that occurs in all Western countries, but to an above-average extent in Germany, even though immigration from predominantly Muslim countries has been taking place on a large scale for more than six decades.

The fact that Islamophobia is still on the rise is not only shown by the fact that the number of attacks on Islamic institutions has averaged around 100 per year over the last ten years - and has recently been on the rise again. Dr Diekmann also cited a recently published study by the "CLAIM Alliance", which campaigns against anti-Muslim racism and other forms of group-related misanthropy. According to the study, there had already been 187 cases of violent attacks, insults and threats against more than 149 individuals and groups, including families, by the end of November last year. Muslim institutions such as mosques and cemeteries were also once again the target of attacks.

At the same time, in a survey conducted by CLAIM of 740 Muslims questioned, 78 per cent stated that they had been the target of Islamophobic attacks or discrimination at least once in their lives. Of those affected, 56 per cent said they had been held responsible for the behaviour of other Muslims. More than 50 per cent stated that they had been insulted or abused for their religious affiliation or criticised for religious actions. Only ten per cent of those affected had reported such incidents or sought advice from a counselling centre. As 56 per cent had not reacted to the attacks, it is clear that there is a considerable number of unreported Islamophobic incidents. Counter-strategies need different directions

As counter-strategies against anti-Muslim racism, Dr Diekmann recommends initiating measures for protection in one's own area, organising mosque visits for

schools to break down prejudices at an early stage and working on a counter-discourse to widespread anti-Muslim thought patterns.

Experience has shown that the counter-discourse does little to change Islamophobic attitudes, but it does influence the willingness to express them in a hostile manner. Its value lies on the one hand in sharpening one's own ability to differentiate, and on the other hand it can create awareness and sensitivity regarding the way in which Muslims are portrayed. In addition, there is the opportunity to use the counter-discourse to draw attention to the extent to which Muslims are the object of racism and discrimination.

In concrete terms, visits to mosques also change hostile attitudes as such in school groups, as real encounters with Muslims challenge prejudices that are often acquired through the influence of third parties or constructed in the media.

The organisation of protection measures is, in turn, a significant way of dealing with the reality of existing and widespread anti-Muslim racism. It requires the acknowledgement that protection - whether of the organisations, mosques, etc. themselves or their members - is a way to at least counter violent manifestations of anti-Muslim racism and to move from a passive to an active role.

However, it is important to note that security cannot be reduced to technical aspects alone. Nor should religious sites give the impression of being inaccessible fortresses. It is crucial that the religious freedoms granted by the Basic Law are brought to life and expressed in the presence and interest of the communities themselves.

The first pioneering example of such a form of expression of interest and sympathy in Germany was the prayer of several hundred Muslim guest workers in the north aisle of Cologne Cathedral. At the time, the Catholic Church wanted to make a statement that the people who had come to Germany as labourers had also brought their religious beliefs with them and that Islam had become a German reality.

The "House of One" as a lighthouse project for dialogue

Openness to dialogue offers the opportunity to reach out to people beyond the boundaries of their own community and religious beliefs and to provide mutual insights into religious and community life. As Ercan Karakoyun noted in the concluding panel discussion, multi-religious faith centres represent best-practice models and play a pioneering role in the future: The House of Religions in Bern, the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Derby, but also the House of One in Berlin.

The House of One, the only one of its kind in Germany to date, combines a synagogue, a church and a mosque in a domed hall that forms its centre as a meeting place. Christians, Jews and Muslims can use the facility to pray, celebrate festivals, hold teaching events or hold interfaith events for the purpose of dialogue in accordance with their doctrines, rites and practices. There are also open events aimed at non-religious people. The project is supported by an interfaith foundation.

The House of One has a jointly developed technical security concept. The core of the security concept as such, however, is the interfaith character of the facility as such, which leads to each community united under its roof developing a sense of responsibility not only for itself, but also for the others. Interfaith encounters, mutual familiarisation and a bond of empathy that arises from mutual interest make the House of One more than the mere sum of the individual religious communities that come together under its roof.

Kai Hafez on the media image of Islam: stereotypical projections and "enlightened Islamophobia"

This empathy is still only rudimentary at best in the majority of high-circulation media in Germany. Communication scientist Dr Kai Hafez anticipated this in his presentation at the Protone Symposium. However, he does not locate the beginning of the prevailing discourse on Islam in the period after 11 September 2001 or in the later 2000s with its "Islam-critical" confrontational journalism.

Hafez cites the "Islamic revolution" in Iran as the starting point. The fact that this primarily represents a minority group within a minority group within Islam as a whole is not fundamentally relevant. Knowledge of the religious foundations of Islam is generally low in Germany - as in the case of Judaism. However, this is precisely what makes an image of Islam such as that of a dominant mainstream within the German media landscape possible. One's own projection replaces the lack of in-depth knowledge - Hafez speaks of an "enlightened Islamophobia".

Political and social uncertainties are one-sidedly and reflexively reduced to possible religious and cultural causes. Just as the media image of the African continent has long been characterised primarily by wars, crises, epidemics and, at best, football from the 1980s onwards, there are also two topics with regard to Islam to which Islam-related reporting is largely reduced: Violence and repression.

Exceptions that endeavour to differentiate largely confirm the rule. Added to this is the fact that violence and dissocial behaviour in the context of members of the Islamic community sell better than Muslims reading aloud or playing music in a retirement home. In the context of Islam, riot journalism is the standard.

Dr Hafez's comments essentially confirmed experiences that members of the Muslim communities regularly report. For example, perpetrators who are Muslim are regularly a welcome opportunity to bring the "Islam" factor into the debate, whereas in the case of Muslim victims of violence and crime, religion seems to be considered a negligible factor instead.

Projects by Muslim communities are also regularly associated with suspicion.When reporting on the planned construction of a mosque or community centre, questions such as whether all requirements have been met, whether there are any findings about possible extreme influences in the sponsoring association or whether Islamophobic forces feel disturbed play a role. What benefits the project could or should have for the community and beyond, what services for young people, children, women or the elderly are to be created there - none of this is regularly discussed.

Mosques are becoming more open and accessible

What became clear in the debate that followed the presentations was that lighthouse projects such as the "House of One" are still far from being the general standard. However, the road there is not nearly as long as some might think. According to surveys, 90 per cent of the Muslim communities surveyed have long maintained regular contact with Christian or Jewish communities in the same location.

Taha Sabri, an imam from Neukölln, emphasised that it is a mandatory commandment of Islam to respect other people's freedom of belief and conscience. The Koran clearly states that there must be no coercion in faith and it also says: "Whoever wants to, let him believe, and whoever wants to, let him deny." Islam also forbids insulting or blaspheming the deities of other religions and cultures. Even in war, it is a duty of the righteous to respect and spare the religious sites of others.

Studies conducted by the German Islam Conference in 2006 and 2018 have also shown that mosques have opened up considerably compared to earlier times, when communities largely kept to themselves. The "Open Mosque Day" is a visible expression of this, but the phenomenon is also evident outside of this annual event.

These are all intact prerequisites for expanding good neighbourly relations with other local communities and, through dialogue and active exchange, cultivating connections, forming networks and strengthening the "we" feeling as believers beyond the religious communities. This will also strengthen the role of the religious communities in reinforcing the idea of "Zusammenland", which is currently so often invoked.

According to Ercan Karakoyun, the fact that the mosque has a function as a centre for social activities is not even a new idea or development. Even at the time of the Prophet, it was a place of prayer, but also of education, and the madrasah was a kind of early university. In Medina, he held discussions there with the members of the delegation from Najran.

If Muslim communities integrate this tradition even more strongly into their everyday community life, it will not only open up an opportunity to get to know each other. Religious life, prayer and the practice of faith also emerge from the hidden and secluded.

Since, according to a study by the German Islam Conference, a quarter of the almost six million Muslims in Germany currently attend a mosque at least once a week, this becomes an opportunity to become involved in the local community beyond the boundaries of their own community.

What municipalities should pay particular attention to

According to Ercan Karakoyun, such networking is particularly important beyond the community itself, especially with regard to the security of places of worship, which is the core concern of the Protone project. It enables easier access to decision-makers and responsible individuals, with whom a positive relationship is helpful in times when the security of religious sites is facing increasing challenges.

For example, it is very important to have a list of trusted lawyers who are prepared to deal with the concerns of the Muslim community discreetly and with the necessary sensitivity. The security and law enforcement authorities should also have contact persons at all times who can be relied upon to deal with the concerns of the Muslim community in a trustworthy and empathetic manner.

Each community should have an emergency contact list that includes contact information for local safety and law enforcement agencies. Communities should also not be afraid to reach out to local elected officials to discuss concerns that affect the community. Coalitions with interfaith initiatives and associations representing minorities are also helpful in many cases. They usually have experience in forming networks to support victims after hate crimes or cases of discrimination.

In any case, vigilance is needed more than ever, especially in turbulent times like these. Every community should recognise its vulnerability and evaluate the areas where action is most needed. Once these have been identified, it is time to develop a security concept that prepares communities for possible attacks and draws up plans to minimise and prevent risks.

Such a concept must also include responses and ways to minimise damage and to recover and restore normality.

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