By Anli Serfontein*
A refugee aid cooperation initiative backed by Christians, Jews and Muslims backed by the Federal German Government dubbed “Do you know who I am?” ("Weißt du, wer ich bin?") has launched in Berlin.
“We should aim to work together and not just next to each other,” the parliamentary state secretary in the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Dr Günter Krings, said at the 31 May launch.
He was speaking before an audience of refugee aid workers from the three Abrahamic faiths, at the start of event at the Catholic Academy in Berlin.
“So far only very few interfaith projects have cooperated significantly on a local level with Muslim, Jewish and Christian organizations. So this is an important sign that together we bear the responsibility for dialogue to benefit our society,” Krings said.
Four Muslim bodies, the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen in Deutschland) initiated the joint refugee integration project.
It is a re-launch of an earlier interfaith dialogue project.
Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior is putting up half a million Euros ($560,000) until the end of the year targeted at encouraging interfaith cooperation on refugee aid projects.
"'Weißt du, wer ich bin?' should be an on the spot contribution to mutual understanding. They therefore make a significant contribution to the integration of refugees and in this way to strengthening our social cohesion,” Krings said.
“The question what is keeping our society together, is not a question that has existed since last year,” he noted.
Markus Dröge, bishop of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Oberlausitz, said some refugee centre operators were reluctant to let religious communities into the accommodation, due to fear of religious fundamentalists.
“To address these fears, we three religions should go jointly to the refugees, to together show our compassion and that religious freedom works in Germany.”
Dröge added that “We are just at the beginning, this should become normality.”
Burhan Kesici, the chairperson of the Muslim Council said at the launch event, “The present interlinking and coordination between the projects is certainly still expandable.
“Muslim congregations and institutions can here act as a bridge-builder and contribute an important contribution to the integration of the newly arrived refugees.”
Krings said that 70 percent of the people applying for political asylum in Germany are Muslims, many who have fled religiously-motivated conflicts. Therefore it is important that these people experience religious peace in Germany.
To underline the religious tolerant theme a Jewish-Muslim-Christian trio from Middle Eastern countries provided the evening’s musical entertainment.
Hamburg's Catholic Archbishop Stefan Hesse, the German Bishop's Conference's special commissioner for refugee issues, said society faces a mammoth task.
“The question of the contribution that religions can make to social cohesion and successful integration will keep us busy for a long time,” he said.
“In the end all of us - Christians, Jews and Muslims - have a moral duty to bear witness to the peace-making and the integration-supporting potential of religion through our everyday actions.”
Erol Pürlü from the Council of Islamic Cultural Centres in Cologne said despite red tape, the common religion of many refugees enables quicker integration into the Muslim congregations who also help them with dealing with everyday life.
However he pointed out that Muslim social welfare structures and organizations are still lacking and have no counterpart to, for example, the Catholic body, Caritas.
Therefore they mostly work with volunteers. Unlike the big Christian churches and the Jewish community, “Muslims are only now starting to establish social welfare structures, which take time of course to set up,” Pürlü said.
Abraham Lehrer, vice-chairperson of the Central Council of Jews in Germany said the small Jewish community is actively involved in some cities like Cologne, Bremen and Berlin with refugee aid and can tap into its own experiences of being refugees in earlier decades and centuries.
With immediate effect interreligious initiatives locally active in the integration of refugees can apply for funding of up to 15,000 euros a project.
The only condition is that at least two organizations of different religious affiliation should be part of the project and one of the partners should be Muslim. The project runs till the end of 2016.
*Anli Serfontein is a South African journalist and author, based in Berlin.