Religious congregations in the spotlight as virus lockdown eased in Germany

For almost two months, from March 16 to the beginning of June, social distancing measures imposed by decree meant that believers could not gather for religious services in Germany. While initially these drastic measures were widely welcomed – or at least tacitly accepted –, the longer the ‘lockdown’ lasted, the more did old political faultlines surrounding Muslim religious practice reappear; and state-mandated mosque closures found themselves challenged in court.

Covid-19 infections among churchgoers

As the country has moved to re-open more and more sectors of social life, religion and religious communities have remained in the spotlight. A Baptist church in Frankfurt emerged as the origin of a new local outbreak: within a few days of a service held on May 10, more than 200 attendees tested positive for the virus.

Similarly, an Evangelical church in the northern city of Bremerhaven became the centre of a large cluster of cases.1 This echoes developments in South Korea at the pandemic’s beginning, when a church in Daegu became the epicentre of the spread of Covid-19 in the country.

Eid al-Fitr prayer banned

It is perhaps with the South Korean cautionary tale in mind that authorities in the town of Hanau, just outside Frankfurt, decided to ban a planned open-air prayer for Eid al-Fitr. Although local mosque communities had developed a health and safety plan in compliance with public guidelines and moved the prayer to a football stadium in order to abide by social distancing rules, city authorities withdrew the previously granted authorisation to hold the event.2

The cancellation strikes a particular and sombre note in Hanau, where a gunman, driven by racial hatred, shot and killed ten mostly Muslim victims on February 19. Against this backdrop, the cancellation of the open-air Eid al-Fitr prayer struck some commentators as indicative of the failure on the part of the authorities and the wider community to stand in solidarity with racial and religious minorities.

Indeed, many have bemoaned the impact of Covid-19 on anti-racist mobilisation in the wake of the Hanau attack. While initial political reactions to the events of February were unsatisfactory in the eyes of many activists, the moments of shock and mourning in the shooting’s immediate aftermath nevertheless had seemed to hold out the promise of a more honest and searching conversation about race and racism in Germany. Yet this opportunity appears to have been missed, as the virus has taken centre stage in public debate, and the victims of the attack have been forgotten.3

Back and forth over the call to prayer

Yet the impact of Covid-19 particularly on Muslim religious life in Germany has not been only restrictive. In some places – such as Cologne or Duisburg – mosques have been allowed to emit the call to prayer for the first time.

Though it is not in principle legally forbidden, only an estimated 30 of Germany’s mosques have a call to prayer audible outside the main prayer hall. The Fatih mosque in the small town of Düren was a trailblazer in this regard, obtaining the right to call its believers to prayer via a lawsuit. Since the 1990s, the muezzin has been calling three times a day – rather than the standard five times, a concession to nighttime quiet hours.4

A virus-induced quest for social solidarity appears to have motivated some local authorities to follow the example of Düren and give up their resistance to Muslim demands for a call to prayer. In most cases, however, reticence and rejection continue to prevail.5 And in Berlin, the attempt to have Evangelical church bells and Islamic call to prayer resound at the same time backfired, leading to bitter political recriminations.

Share Button