Interview with Winfried Verburg

A Place of Learning for All Religions

The Diocese of Osnabrück is organising an inter-faith school project that is unique in Germany. In co-operation with the Jewish community and Muslim organisations, the diocese is planning to open a primary school for children of the three Abrahamic religions. Eren Güvercin discussed the project with Winfried Verburg, director of the Education Department of the Episcopal Vicariate Osnabrück

Winfried Verburg, director of the Education Department of the Episcopal Vicariate Osnabrück (photo: private)
According to Winfried Verburg, the school is a joint venture between the Educational Foundation of the Diocese of Osnabrück, the Jewish community and Muslim organisations

​​ Dr Verburg, in a recent press conference, the Diocese of Osnabrück informed the public about its Educational Foundation project in which a primary school in Osnabrück is to be structured in such a way that children of the three Abrahamic religions can "learn and live" together. Where did the idea come from?

Winfried Verburg: We had the idea several years ago. First of all, we realise that society and also our diocese – to which Bremen, Emden and Osnabrück belong – is clearly no longer home to Christians alone, but rather that our region embraces a multi-faith community. We must and want to respond to this. As a diocese, we and the state are jointly responsible for Catholic religious education in schools here and we naturally want religious instruction to be a priority in the school system.

With whom will you co-operate to realize this project?

Verburg: We are in dialogue with Osnabrück's Jewish community, which comprises approximately 1,000 members and is now larger than it was before World War II, as well as with "Schura Niedersachsen", the umbrella organisation for the majority of Muslim organizations and associations in Lower Saxony.

Which organizations will be responsible for Islamic religious education?

Verburg: We have been discussing Islamic religious instruction with the chair of the department of Islamic Religious Education Studies at the University of Osnabrück, Professor Bülent Ucar. We have worked together successfully on the secondary school project "Islamic Religious Education in Papenburg", which was the first attempt to introduce Islamic religious education in Lower Saxony at secondary school level. There had previously only been one other attempt at primary school level.

In close co-operation with Professor Ucar, we want to provide Islamic religious education. The first of his students at the university are about to qualify as religious teachers of Islam.

How will the school be structured? And what will the make up of pupils from each of the religious communities be like?

Verburg: We can't say yet, exactly. We are offering a service. No one is obliged to attend the school. Nor is there a catchment area for enrolment, which would normally allow us to establish how many Jewish families with however many children as well as Muslim families and Christian families are in residence.

Religious symbols representing Christianity, Islam and Judaism (photo: DW)
The vision of a school for Jews, Muslims and Christians: the project aims to be especially sensitive regarding issues such as communal eating at school and the use of religious symbols

​​ We are simply offering a service to any parents who may be interested. So we cannot say in advance that there will be so-and-so many Muslim, Jewish or Christian children attending. It will also depend on how the parents react to our offer.

In preliminary discussions with representatives of the religious communities we have, of course, made a point of saying: "We depend on you to tell your communities that this is something positive and that is why you are sending your children to school here."

Who will draw up the curricula for the religious education classes?

Verburg: Regarding Catholic and Protestant religious instruction, there are already syllabuses that have been agreed between the state of Lower Saxony and the respective Churches. These will of course apply at the school.

The same holds true for the Jewish religious education classes, which are currently being held in rooms provided by the Jewish community. For the Islamic education courses there is a syllabus, which I believe is being tested in 37 schools across Germany. We can most certainly use that as a starting point, although we will take a closer look at it with Professor Ucar and work on it before we present it to parents.

We face the same problem that Germany's individual states are facing in that we don't have one official contact person who is authorized to speak for the entire Muslim community.

In Papenburg we managed to get around this problem by presenting the parents with a syllabus that was created here by Professor Ucar and his department for Islamic Religious Education. The parents said "Yes, this is what we want from religious education class in this school." In this way, you could say that we acted in lieu of an official representative, knowing full well it is not appropriate for all public schools in the country.

Can this school project serve as a model for the rest of Germany?

Verburg: I hesitate to use the word model. It is a place of learning. I prefer that term. It is a place of learning not only for children, but also for their teachers and the parents, the families for whom it is important. It will also be a place of learning for the three religious communities.

Will we succeed at living together? There are many issues that need to be addressed – religious symbols, to name just one. We aren't intending to leave our walls bare; but rather – in the spirit of tolerance – that the various faiths learn to accept each others' symbols and customs. We will practise this even when we eat together, respecting the various rules governing food.

Are you considering other offers or activities to broaden the scope of this place of learning?

Pupils in a primary school (photo: AP)
Project initiators hope collaborative Project Days will create a community of learning among pupils, teachers and parents of the three monotheistic religions

​​ Verburg: There will be one religious education course respectively. Approximately once every 6 months, a comparable topic will be covered in all three religion courses which will then end in a Project Day on which the pupils show each other their results. In this way they'll learn to talk to each other about each others' differing religious beliefs, rituals and customs. Our goal is to help them be capable of dialoguing with one another.

Is it to be an all-day school?

Verburg: We've made a very determined decision that this project will be run as an obligatory all-day school – in other words, we're not just offering care in the afternoons to those who want to stay on afterwards. In the first place, this ambitious project anticipates that children of differing religions and in some cases, differing cultures, will need time to learn to live with one another. Class time is simply too short for that. These children are to be given the time outside of the classroom to learn to live with one another.

The second reason for the obligatory all-day school structure is that we are convinced that a school like this will be able to minimise some of the disadvantages that children from so-called 'uneducated households', face.

We hope that we will be able to integrate other courses into the curriculum such as sport, music and art – courses that aren't components of our religious education – so that those children whose parents can't take them to music school for example, also get the chance to develop their talents in these areas.

There's a third reason too: an obligatory all-day school – especially at primary school level – has the advantage of being able to adjust to children's ability to learn – their learning biorhythm of relaxation and activity – and isn't bound by the strict 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. format where children have to learn during that time period and are then released to go do other things.

Is it clear yet when the school will officially open its doors?

Verburg: The earliest possible date we would be able to start is 1 August 2011 as children have already enrolled for the upcoming school year, which begins 1 August 2010, so that the children can receive extra language tuition.

Interview: Eren Güvercin

© 2009

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