One interfaith couple's story

Our three weddings – civil, Muslim, and Christian

On Christmas Eve 2014 Michael Blume asked his wife Zehra whether he should help a thousand women and children, victims of IS violence, leave northern Iraq. After all, sheʹd been known to say yes to all kinds of questions in the past. Andreas Malessa recounts the story of their unusual relationship

"Hello. My name is Michael Blume. Is Zehra at home?" Outside the front door, a school friend of the Tayanc familyʹs eighteen-year-old daughter is clutching a rapidly wilting geranium. "Who is it?" Osman Tayanc calls from the living room. "Blume, Michael Blume," the young man repeats. He has never asked a Turkish father if he can go out with his daughter before.

"Iʹm in the Junge Union with Zehra. I wanted to ask . . ." Mrs Tayanc suppresses a laugh. Which is trembling more – the flower or its German namesake, Michael Blume? "Zehraʹs away on a school trip," she says. "But come on in." Michael gestures no, by this point holding the geranium over his head like an umbrella. "Iʹll go and find her. Bye!"

Zehra and Michael met in ethics class

On 10 December 2018, a young woman received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Nadia Murad survived the Yazidi genocide by escaping from the IS terrorists. Now an internationally renowned human rights activist, Murad was one of around 1100 women and children Michael Blume was charged with bringing from northern Iraq to Germany on behalf of the regional government of Baden-Württemberg in 2015.

He and a team of psychotherapists, interpreters and civil servants made fifteen trips to the crisis area to enable a life in peace and safety for traumatised victims of sexual violence.

Nadia Murad (photo: Reuters/C. Hartmann)
Nadia Murad belongs to the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq. Like many other Yazidi women, she was abducted and sexually abused by jihadists. Since her flight abroad she has campaigned for the rights of Yazidi women and the punishment of her tormentors. Last year she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with the Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege. The now world-famous human rights activist was one of around 1,100 women and children whom Michael Blume brought to Germany from northern Iraq in 2015 on behalf of the Baden-Wurttemberg state government

A graduate in religious studies, he started his working life as a staid civil servant in Stuttgart. Michael Blume is not the kind of man who usually switches cars and licence plates under covering fire from Kurdish peshmerga troops and holds secret negotiations with clan heads in tent cities. His unlikely turn off the beaten career track has to do with his Muslim wife.

The two met in ethics class at school. Protestant religion classes were not an option for her as a Muslim or for him, the son of an atheist family. Michaelʹs father served a military prison term in East Germany for an alleged attempt to escape the country, while his mother had left as a dissident. Born in the West, their son Michael was to grow up free from all ideologies – including religion.

Looked after by true blue Swabians

Zehra had been looked after by the familyʹs neighbours from the age of three to eleven, while her parents were at work. "They were pious Swabians from the countryside who loved me more than anything," Zehra remembers. "And they prayed before every meal: ʹCome, Lord Jesus, be our guest.ʹ My childminderʹs favourite recipe was pork – spare ribs. ʹZehra, youʹre not allowed to eat them, are you?ʹ sheʹd say, and sometimes Iʹd stick to the rules and sometimes I wouldnʹt."

Some locals in the village whispered about how they could take in a "random Turkish kid". That kind of thing would enrage Zehraʹs childminder: "God knows everything, only the neighbours know more. But thereʹs only one Father in heaven, isnʹt there?!" It was the 1980s. Popular opinion had not yet been poisoned by populists transforming cultural disconcertment into hate.

On the way to meet Zehra on her classʹs week away, making use of his brand-new driving licence, Michael didnʹt notice that the hand brake wasnʹt fully disengaged. His fatherʹs car gave off clouds of smoke as he confessed his love to her over the battered geranium. "We should concentrate on finishing our exams next year and then you have to ask my father," she said, infatuated and distressed in equal measure.

Michael became the youngest youth councillor in the local town hall, while Zehra organised theme nights, oldies parties with parents and DJ nights for teenagers, spearheaded local environmental projects and canvassed for the CDU. Both of them passed their exams with flying colours. Zehra had just had four wisdom teeth removed when Michael proposed to her on the way home from the dentist. "I will!" she wrote on a piece of paper, touched and happy. She couldnʹt actually speak at the time.

"Baba Osman, I love your daughter…"

Then came the moment they had been dreading for so long: "Baba Osman, I love your daughter and Iʹm certain I want to marry her. Will you give me your blessing?" Mr Tayanc was clearly surprised. "You want to be her husband, I see. But what do you believe?"

Michaelʹs heart sank. Did Osman mean "Who do you think you are?" or did he mean "What do you believe in?" Would he have to convert to Islam? "Are you a Christian?" Zehraʹs father added. Perhaps heʹd prefer a Christian son-in-law to an atheist, Michael thought. "Er . . . Iʹm on my way. Iʹm trying to become a Christian. And I respect and revere your religion."

Symbolic image of a wedding ring/wedding (photo: Rido/Fotolia.com)
The moment they had both been dreading: "Baba Osman, I love your daughter and Iʹm certain I want to marry her. Will you give me your blessing?" Mr Tayanc was clearly surprised. "You want to be her husband, I see. But what do you believe?"

Zehraʹs mother Anne put a hand on Michaelʹs shoulder and said: "Oglum!" My son – an honorific and a pet name with the weight of a quasi-adoption. To her husband, she said: "Michael isnʹt a Muslim, but if you ask me – Iʹll take him as a son-in-law." Osman was encircled by loving people.

"Thatʹs alright then. I agree," he said. His smile turned into a grin. The men hugged. "So this is how your patriarchy works," a relieved Michael thought. He took a baptism preparation course that counted as intensified confirmation lessons. His atheist parentsʹ reaction was quietly positive: "We fought for freedom. Itʹs OK if you use that freedom to become a Christian."

Zehra lights the baptism candle

The church is full to the rafters. Adult baptisms are a rare occasion. And of a well-known member of the local youth council at that! Zehra and her parents are there too. Once Michael has been christened with a few drops of water on his head, the pastor addresses the congregation: "Iʹd like to invite Zehra Tayanc to the front." People turn their heads in surprise. "She is his fiancee and played a major part in sparking Michaelʹs faith. Zehra – would you light his baptism candle, please?"

Zehra was a trainee at a bank at the time, while Michael was taking a degree in religious studies at Tubingen University. They had three wedding ceremonies: secular, Muslim and Christian. Michael got a part-time position as an "inter-religious dialogue officer" in a regional ministry in Stuttgart and wrote his masterʹs thesis on "The Opening of Islam in Germany through a New Islamic Elite".

He sent emails to young Muslims requesting interviews, asked them to forward them and thanked them with the hope of "soon being allowed to work together again". It was not until he evaluated the questionnaires that he noticed one of his respondents was a radical Muslim. "Does Islamist influence go all the way to the Stuttgart regional government?" a newspaper bellowed in its headline.

According to the domestic intelligence service, Officer Blume had contact with a radical Muslim – and wanted to "work together soon".

In the general hysteria after 9/11, a civil servant with a Muslim partner was considered highly suspicious. Michaelʹs initial amused exasperation at being labelled a "Protestant risk factor" soon gave way to sleeplessness and fear: "Has marrying me harmed you?" Zehra asked. "Youʹre still in your probationary period at work, after all." Michael was upset: "If loving someone of another faith brings disadvantages – is this still the democracy I believe in?" His boss, however, was on his side.

The 2011 regional elections in Baden-Württemberg spelled the end of 58 years in government for the CDU. Michael Blume, by that point a father of three, started packing his things at the office. He planned to apply for a job at Tubingen University. Suddenly he saw Winfried Kretschmann in the doorway, the first Green Party prime minister. "Would you be prepared to stay? For church and religious issues plus integration of minorities?" It was an unexpected career leap.

Saving a thousand lives – you canʹt duck out of it

On 3 August 2014, terrorists from the so-called Islamic State attacked villages and towns in northern Iraq because they were home to "disbelievers": Yazidis, Christians, non-Sunni Muslims. They murdered some 3000 men in front of their families and abducted at least 5000 women and children to abuse as slaves.

Some 190 000 Yazidis live in Germany or were born there. That September, representatives of their central council showed pictures, torture of children, public executions, even crucifixions. They asked for help in the face of this disaster. Winfried Kretschmann was shocked, but told the Yazidi representatives "Baden-Württemberg doesnʹt have an army. . ."

Staff at the ministry recalled the late 1970s, when Lower Saxony took in Vietnamese "boat people". Germanyʹs federal states are permitted to accept special allotments of refugees. "Should we get about 1000 victims of sexual violence out of northern Iraq?" Kretschmann asked at a conference of political parties, local councils, churches and associations.

"We have a legal basis to do so. But it will cost tens of millions. And the federal government wonʹt accept responsibility, it will be down to us." All the hands in the room were raised – a consensus never seen before.

Andreas Malessa (photo: private)
Andreas Malessa is a radio and television journalist on ARD and an Evangelical Free Church theologian

Every life counts

It is Christmas Eve when Winfried Kretschmann asks: "Would you do it, Mr Blume?" Through an office window, Michael sees a Christmas tree. Can he change something in this cruel world? He, the civil servant in a German region famed for its hardworking attitude and modest ambitions?

"Everyone in my generation has seen the movie ʹSchindlerʹs Listʹ and thought: would I have that courage? Suddenly that question was real," he recalls. "A thousand human lives! And if I duck out?" He hears himself answering: "Yes, I can do it. But I have to ask my wife first."

Christmas vespers in the Protestant church. Blumeʹs children are 11, 9 and 3, the best age to celebrate Christmas. Zehra and her daughter Melissa play the flute and Michael reads chapter two of Saint Lukeʹs Gospel. Zehra wonders why Michael has tears in his eyes. The family eat a semi-traditional late Christmas Eve meal of potato salad and halal sausages. Then there are presents.

Once the children are in bed, Michael drops his bombshell: "Kretschmann asked me whether Iʹd go and get the IS slaves out of Iraq, a thousand women and children." Zehra is shocked. "All in one go?" – "No, it will take a lot of missions." – "How often? How long?" –"I donʹt know. We have to find them, check their health, issue visas, bring them here, house them. It will probably take a year." – "And youʹd have to go to Iraq every time . . .?"

He nods. Suddenly she starts crying and takes his hand: "We both believe God will one day ask us what we did about the misery before our eyes, right?" Michael nods again. "Iʹm constantly ashamed of the crimes committed in the Middle East in the name of Islam. It makes me so angry that those monsters call themselves Muslims!"

She looks at Michael: "Youʹve become the man I always saw in you. Back at school, in ethics class. So yes – do it. Every life counts."

Andreas Malessa

© Chrismon 2019

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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