Where are the Islamic chaplains?

No pastoral care for Muslims in Germany's armed forces

Lieutenant Nariman Hammounti-Reinke risked her life for Germany in Afghanistan. But when it comes to her religion she feels left out by the Bundeswehr, despite the growing number of Muslim troops in the country's army. By Christoph Strack

"I've had situations where I've thought, 'It's crunch time. It's no longer practice. They are real shots and real missiles being fired at you'," Nariman Hammouti-Reinke, a 41-year-old soldier in the German army, the Bundeswehr, recalls. When she talks about her Bundeswehr mission, one can sense the pressure and fear from weeks and months of dangerous foreign deployment.

Lieutenant Hammouti-Reinke is Muslim, German-Muslim. The daughter of Moroccan parents, she was born near Hanover in Germany's north. For her, preparing for deployment abroad affected her profoundly on both a personal and religious level.

"I took my own shroud with me," the author of the book Ich diene Deutschland (lit.: 'I serve Germany') revealed. "I had to write a sort of manual for my boss in the event I was killed. And I had to think about and arrange who would tell my parents if I died."

Military pastoral care only for Christians and Jews

A Muslim soldier deployed on a dangerous mission needs to plan in detail. Even more so, because there is no Muslim military pastoral care offered in the German army – unlike for Christians and, in the near future, people of the Jewish faith. "That's still discrimination and unequal treatment," Hammouti-Reinke says.

German soldiers on parade (photo: Bundeswehr/Sebastian Wilke)
A reflection of German society in the 21st century: some 185,000 soldiers currently serve in the Bundeswehr. Of those, around 53,400 are Protestant and almost 41,000 Catholic. Estimates suggest some 300 soldiers are followers of the Jewish faith and some 3,000 are Muslim

Things were supposed to be different. At the end of January, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer met the Chairman of the Central Council of Muslims, Aiman Mazyek, at a meeting of high-ranking Jewish and Muslim religious representatives. Kramp-Karrenbauer spoke with one of the rabbis about the agreement to have military rabbis in the Bundeswehr in future. She then turned to Mazyek and said: "And the next step should follow. We will start talks at some point and see how we will achieve that."

Many discussions, no concrete actions

Mazyek isn't the only one who recalls this. Journalists were also present. Half a year on and the Central Council representative says that since the talks, "nothing has happened. They just have to start – take a step and organise pastoral care for Muslims."

Since the historic decision was made one and a half years ago to establish a Jewish military chaplaincy by the federal government and the Central Council of Jews, there have been negotiations, politicians have talked about it, cabinet ministers and both houses of parliament have deliberated and decided it should happen. The agreement for a Jewish chaplaincy was signed, in the presence of the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, by Kramp-Karrenbauer and Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Sometimes a mumbled sentence was heard that Muslim military chaplaincy should follow. At some point. Without a doubt.

A right to religious pastoral care

The numbers speak for themselves. Almost 185,000 soldiers are currently serving in the Bundeswehr. Of those, around 53,400 are Protestant and almost 41,000 Catholic. Estimates suggest some 300 soldiers are followers of the Jewish faith and some 3,000 are Muslim. Not too long ago, the outgoing Protestant military bishop, Sigurd Rink, estimated there were between 3,000 and 4,000 followers of Islam currently serving in the Bundeswehr.

But there is no Muslim contact person. More than 3,000 soldiers. "That is a significant number," says Lieutenant Hammouti-Reinke. "Every single soldier is a relevant number. Now Jewish pastoral care is being managed, which was long overdue. But Islamic pastoral care, they just don't seem to want it."

Cover of Nariman Hammouti-Reinke's "Ich diene Deutschland. Ein Plaedoyer für die Bundeswehr – und warum sie sich ändern muss" – 'I serve Germany. My case for the Bundeswehr – and why it must change' (published in German by Rowohlt Taschenbuch)
Lieutenant Hammouti-Reinke is Muslim, German-Muslim. For her, preparing for deployment abroad affected her profoundly on both a personal and religious level. "I took my own shroud with me," she revealed. "I had to write a sort of manual for my boss in the event I was killed. And I had to think about and arrange who would tell my parents if I died"

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A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence admitted that in the armed forces, "more and more soldiers with Muslim religious affiliation are serving in the military. All of them are entitled to pastoral care in their religion."

Bundestag election campaign slows down reform

In principle, Germany's Defence Ministry calculates one pastor for every 1,500 soldiers. It has long been talked about: after all, the right to exercise freedom of religion is laid out in the constitution. Military Bishop Rink recalls talks which took place when the former Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was in office.

Von der Leyen, he says, took the issue very seriously soon after taking office, but then the 2017 Bundestag election got in the way of things. The search for a contact person remains, and the ministry is holding back on negotiations with the Central Council of Muslims.

The Defence Ministry spokesman emphasises that the institution is anxious to expand the offer of pastoral care to "as many denominations as possible" and is currently in talks on the matter. However, "due to the very different organisational forms of Muslim religious associations, a concrete implementation is not foreseeable at present."

In the meantime, the Central Contact Point for Soldiers of Other Faiths (ZASaG), founded in 2015, will provide the "necessary care", he added. Should a German-Muslim be killed in active duty on a foreign mission, one can only speculate that the ZASaG would quickly find an imam. Currently, there are thousands of Muslim soldiers ready to risk their lives for Germany without the state offering them any form of pastoral care.

Assistance to Muslims serving in the U.S. Army

And so the legal pussyfooting remains. Rink spoke of the possibility of finding chaplains who were not necessarily imams. Mazyek finds that odd, and suggests this is another example of the non-integration of Muslims.

Various social groups, including religious groups, are represented on the Bundeswehr's Internal Advisory Council, but there is no-one representing the Muslim community. Invitations are handed out personally, not as a group. That could also apply to Nariman Hammouti-Reinke, who fought for Germany in Afghanistan.

"You have to want it," said Aiman Mazyek, before adding that he could imagine cooperating with the churches on the issue. When it comes to imams working as military pastoral carers, he uses the example of the U.S. Army. Hammouti-Reinke knows of female British soldiers who wear the hijab. And Germany – is still finding its way. Will anything happen before the federal election in the autumn of 2021? It's highly unlikely when you look at the Jewish military rabbis, whom everyone wanted, but nevertheless still took a year and a half to implement.

"That is unfair," says Hammouti-Reinke. "It says to me that Islam still hasn't arrived in Germany, although we are already serving our country – our country is Germany – and we would also give our lives for Germany."

Christoph Strack

© Deutsche Welle 2020

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