Vatican weighs into German row over religious symbols

The Catholic Church strongly attacked the President of Germany yesterday for suggesting that schools should prohibit Christian symbols if they went ahead with plans to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in the classroom.

Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the head of the German Bishops' Conference, said Johannes Rau was wrong to equate the "political" headscarf with Christian symbols, which were an established part of German culture.

He told Focus magazine: "Many women consider the headscarf to be a symbol of discrimination but Christian crosses and religious clothing have not the slightest trace of political propaganda about them. These differing symbols cannot be lumped together as missionary garb."

Cardinal Lehmann's remarks, which were sanctioned by the Vatican, are the latest development in a growing row about the wearing of headscarves in German state schools. The dispute mirrors similar controversy in France, where President Jacques Chirac has asked parliament to ban headscarves from the classroom along with overt Christian and Jewish symbols.

In France and, to a lesser extent, in Germany, the moves are seen as an attempt to protect the secular nature of state schools from Muslim fundamentalism. In Germany, teachers' unions and human rights groups are strongly opposed to a headscarf ban. But several of the 16 federal states have said they will implement a ban.

The move follows a decision in September by the country's Constitutional Court, which concluded that it could not implement a national headscarf ban and, instead, ruled that it was up to individual states to legislate.

Mr Rau, a practising Protestant who frequently addresses moral issues, ignited what had hitherto been a low-key debate on the proposed bans at the weekend by insisting that any outlawing of symbols in schools should be applied equally to all religions.

He said in an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper: "If one bans the headscarf in schools as a religious symbol, it is difficult to defend the monk's habit. Our constitution requires equal treatment of all religions in the public sphere."

Cardinal Lehmann's criticism of the German President followed similar remarks by other leading German Roman Catholics. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, insisted that the Catholic Church would not allow the cross to be banished from schools or other public places.

He said at a New Year's Eve mass in the city of Regensburg: "President Rau has given a very curious lesson. I would not bar a Muslim woman from wearing a headscarf, but even less would I let anyone ban the cross as a public sign of reconciliation."

The controversy deepened at the weekend, with several senior politicians - including Angela Merkel, Germany's opposition Christian Democrat leader, Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian Prime Minister, and Wolfgang Thierse, the Social Democrat parliamentary president - adding their criticism. Mr Thierse said: "The cross is not a symbol of oppression, but the headscarf can be one for many Muslim women."

Germany, which is home to some 3.5 million Muslims, mostly of Turkish origin, remains divided over the headscarf issue. Two largely Catholic states, Bavaria and Baden-W├╝rttemberg, have drawn up legislation that would ban teachers from wearing headscarves in schools, although the prohibition would not apply to the display of Christian or Jewish symbols. Several others have said they will follow suit.

But, in its September ruling, Germany's Constitutional Court stipulated that any new laws had to treat all religions equally. German legal experts have warned that attempts to implement a headscarf ban in state schools could provoke a series of protracted court battles, with Muslim complainants arguing that their religion was being discriminated against.

President Rau, who has taken no position on the merits of a ban, appears to have been attempting to encourage states to abide by requirements set out by the Consitutional Court. " I am just saying that the decisions that will now be made should be consistent," he said.