October 23, 2008 / 12:12 PM / 9 years ago

Berlin's Muslim leaders to learn about German life

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Berlin senators and members of the Muslim community launched a scheme this week to teach imams more about German society and boost dialogue between religious and non-religious groups.

About 25 imams from all over the capital have registered to join the pilot program including German history and politics lessons, with the aim of becoming better informed about the ways of life in the country they live in.

"In today's world, imams are no longer just asked for advice on religious issues," Berlin Integration Commissioner Guenter Piening told Reuters.

"They are also quizzed about mundane, everyday life," said Piening, adding part of the course involved visiting the Bundestag lower house of parliament and then discussing Germany's democratic political system.

Germany is home to about 3.2 million Muslims, most of whom have Turkish roots. Although relations are largely peaceful, the lack of integration is a worry for politicians.

Many Turks live in small communities and cannot speak German fluently, limiting their job prospects.

"I was motivated to join the program because imams have a huge responsibility these days," said Suat Oezkan, 38, one of the imams attending the course, which has two lessons per week.

"The program offers a lot of support and is a wonderful way of creating more transparency between people from all religions," he told Reuters.

The manager, who used to work as a television presenter in Turkey, said education was the only way of breaking down barriers and tackling Westerners' fears about Islam.

The voluntary program was developed and initiated by the Islam Forum Berlin, a group established in 2005 which meets Berlin's Senate four times a year to discuss ways of improving the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the city.

The Forum groups representatives of the Muslim community with Berlin senators.

Germany's federal government and the EU are funding the program, which is being piloted in Berlin.

"We've received a very positive response from both religious and non-religious communities," Piening said, adding other federal states had expressed an interest in establishing a similar program.

Germany has about 2,500 mosque communities and some 2,250 imams who tend to receive their theological schooling abroad because the training is not readily available in Germany.

As a result, critics complain that they often know little about the German way of life.

Last week, the opening of the first mosque in former communist eastern Germany was marred by protests by residents and a few far-right protesters.

Germany's biggest mosque opens in the northern city of Duisburg Sunday.

Editing by Philippa Fletcher

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