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A Culture Clash in Berlin: Referendum Pits Ethics against Religion

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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."

Momper, a former mayor of Berlin, is now spearheading the "Pro Ethik" campaign which opposes Pro Reli and is campaigning to keep ethics compulsory and religion optional. "We want to explain things to people," Momper says. "Many don't realize what this is all about and think that religion class is going to be banned." Behind the stand "No" is written in massive red letters. After all many Berliners are not sure what a "yes" or "no" vote in Sunday's referendum actually means.

Lehmann and Pro Reli will win if a majority of those who turn out opt to vote "yes." However, under rules for referendums in the city, they also need at least one-quarter of all those eligible to vote in Berlin, that's about 610,000 votes. Momper -- along with Mayor Klaus Wowereit and the Berlin government, made up of Social Democrats (SPD) and the Left Party -- will win if the majority vote "no" or not enough people turn out.

The issue has deeply divided the city in recent weeks, with both camps organizing dozens of workshops and discussion panels. The camps can roughly be divided into: CDU, business friendly FDP and the churches versus Berlin's ruling left-wing parties, the SPD and Left Party; bourgeois West Berliners against proletarian East Berliners; believers against atheists. But there are many exceptions -- after all the newly trendy Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg districts in the former East now have a lot of high earning residents who think of themselves as middle class, people the Pro Reli people will be hoping to attract. They are also banking on the many Berliners from the former East who in communist times were involved in church groups.

'A Referendum not a Crusade'

The attacks from both sides have become increasingly shrill, with Hans Joachim Meyer, the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, saying that the ethics class was reminiscent of the former East Germany, and concealed a "high level of conformity."

Petra Pau, a lawmaker with the Left Party, which incorporates the former successor party to the East German commmunists, on the other hand has accused the Catholics of going on a war path on the issue. "This is a referendum not a crusade," she told Reuters.

However, not everyone in the Christian churches automatically backs Pro Reli. In an open letter, the group Pro Ethics Christians complained about a loss of democracy in the church. "We currently have the problem that things are being silenced within the church," spokesman Josef Göbel said. In fact, the church has already told one critical priest to toe the line.

While Berlin has roughly an equal number of Catholics and Protestants, it has a long secular tradition, with 60 percent of Berliners not being a member of any church. In addition it is home to Germany's biggest Muslim community, numbering about 220,000. And the issue is being hotly debated there too.

The Turkish Association of Berlin-Brandenburg, the Turkish Parent's Association and the Anatolian Alevi Community joined together last week to call for a "no" vote -- that is, in favor of Pro Ethik. Meanwhile the Pro Reli side can count on the support of the Ditib Turkish-Islamic Union, who argue that religion class at school could combat radicalism. "It's important that schools have enlightened Islamic lessons -- and that we avoid unofficial Koran lessons in backyards," Ender Cetin of Ditib told Reuters.

With a few days to go until the referendum, opinion polls show that Berliners are split nearly exactly down the middle, with polls showing a 51 percent to 49 percent divide, sometimes for one side, sometimes for the other. Turnout could be the deciding factor.

-- wire reports with reporting by Oliver Trenkamp and Esther Wiemann

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