With the accelerated movement of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa over the past several years, German society has encountered a changing cultural and religious landscape.
These shifts in German culture and society have stimulated profound societal reflection on fundamental issues. “Thought leaders in Germany are asking foundational questions, especially about religion and its expression in public life,” explains Saba Detweiler, a representative of the German Baha’i community.
These questions are not confined to Germany. Among some in Europe, a longstanding assumption that religion would gradually fade out of the public sphere and become only a private matter has been turned upside down. “People are seeing that religion is an essential part of humanity’s collective life. It is not going away. For this reason, it is important to better understand the nature and contributions of religion and to have a dialogue about its positive expression in society,” explains Ms. Detweiler.
Yet, the Baha’i community has also found that traditional spaces for discussions on religion—primarily interreligious forums—are often not oriented to explore the questions now arising in Europe and elsewhere. “It seems that the conversation needs to move beyond interreligious dialogue, beyond issues of theology and rituals, to allow for a more rich discourse on religion’s contribution to the betterment of society and the common good,” says Ms. Detweiler.
One of the more challenging questions is whether religion can be seen as something more than just groupings of differing sects and denominations at odds with one another. “This is what we are interested in exploring—the idea that religion can be seen as a cohesive force in society and as a system of knowledge that has, together with science, propelled the advancement of civilizations,” she continues.
Part of the reason that German society is now grappling with questions around religion, explains Ingo Hofmann, Director of the Baha’i Office of External Affairs in Germany, is that many Germans are seeing religion practiced in ways that are foreign to them. This has made them more aware of their own religious norms and beliefs, even among those who do not typically associate themselves with organized religion.
Naturally, this process has stimulated curiosity and a quest to build mutual understanding but has also given rise to fears and xenophobia. As national conversations on migration and religion have gained momentum in recent years, the Baha’i community of Germany has been learning how to work side by side with its fellow citizens and various organizations to begin a constructive dialogue on the questions arising from the changing landscape in the country.
Striving to make a meaningful contribution, the Baha’i community has, over the past year, organized a series of forums on religion’s role in the public sphere. These culminated in a conference on March 24, 2017, titled “Further thoughts on Religious Pluralism,” which some sixty individuals from government, civil society, media, and faith-based groups attended.
Aydan Özoğuz, the German government’s State Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Integration, sponsored the conference. The event was co-hosted by the Baha’i community of Germany and the Anne Frank Foundation, an organization dedicated to human rights education and fostering dialogue between groups of diverse backgrounds.
In the opening comments, Mrs. Özoğuz spoke about the common aspiration among all religions for peace and harmony. “Religion shapes trust in our fellow human beings and in the possibility of establishing social cohesion,” she said.
She highlighted the supportive and compassionate response of many Germans to the influx of refugees in the summer of 2015 as an example of how faith can animate action and service to others. “Dedicating ourselves to the well-being of our fellow human beings is essential to building solidarity and a strong sense of community.”
Mrs. Özoğuz also included in her address a passage from Baha’u’llah as an example of the call of religion to humanity to rise to high ideals:
Consort with all religions with amity and concord, that they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God. Beware lest amidst men the flame of foolish ignorance overpower you. – The Most Holy Book, p. 72.