Muslims in the German military set to get their own chaplaincy

Several rows of German army recruits wearing ceremonial service uniforms stand in formation with their backs to the camera, November 2023
An Islamic chaplaincy would provide pastoral care for the roughly 3,000 Muslim soldiers in Germany's armed forces

Soldiers of the Islamic faith in Germany's armed forces have long lacked the pastoral care available to their Christian and Jewish counterparts. What was once seen as politically impossible is about to change.

By Christoph Strack

As the parliamentary commissioner for the German armed forces (the Bundeswehr), Eva Högl is responsible for ensuring that the issues and needs of German soldiers get heard. In mid-March, Högl presented her third annual report in her role as commissioner – and once again, she pushed for a military chaplaincy for Muslims.

No matter which political party has controlled Germany's Defence Ministry, when it comes to Islamic military pastoral care, the political line has remained the same for years: it's not possible, there's no partner to approach on the Muslim side.

Högl, of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), is no longer content with that response. The "lack of an equally empowered military chaplaincy for soldiers of the Islamic faith" is "extremely unsatisfactory". Högl has demanded that the Defence Ministry speedily institute this pastoral care, to be provided by qualified personnel on a contractual basis.

Högl recalled the aid mission that the German army undertook in south-east Turkey following the devastating earthquake in February 2023. Muslim soldiers were among the deployed, yet pastoral care was provided by two non-Muslim military chaplains. According to Högl, she received feedback indicating "that Muslim members of the military felt somewhat abandoned when it came to their religious practices."

Parliamentary commissioner for the German armed forces Eva Högl smiles as she holds up her third annual report in her role as commissioner
Eva Högl, parliamentary commissioner for the German armed forces, has said that the 'lack of an equally empowered military chaplaincy for soldiers of the Islamic faith' is 'extremely unsatisfactory'

3,000 Muslims among Germany's troops

In response to an inquiry by DW, a spokesperson for the Defence Ministry estimated the number of Muslim soldiers to be around 3,000, based on a study from 2023.

Nearly 25 years ago, the Centre for Inner Leadership, the educational institute that defines the profile and identity of the Bundeswehr, published a paper entitled "Muslims in the Bundeswehr". Calls for Islamic pastoral care have been ongoing for more than a decade.

The military chaplains currently serving the armed forces' other religious communities are also pushing for professional pastoral care for Muslims in uniform. Bernhard Felmberg, a Protestant military bishop, told DW that both he and other Protestant military clergy have been approached by soldiers wanting to discuss the need for pastoral care. These needs must be recognised, he added.

Military pastoral care, Felmberg explained, guarantees the constitutional right to freedom of religion for soldiers, who provide a special service.

"As an increasing number of Muslims are serving in the Bundeswehr, I expressly support giving these soldiers the option of pastoral care in their religion," he said.

Representatives of both Catholic and Jewish military chaplaincies have expressed similar sentiments in the past months.

The US, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Norway are among the countries that provide Islamic pastoral care; most of them also have military imams. Germany, however, lacks the state-regulated arrangement needed for this, as there is no umbrella organisation that represents all Islamic denominations.

In contrast, the introduction of Jewish military pastoral care was made possible in 2019 thanks to cooperation with the Central Council of Jews in Germany, a well-established institute able to speak for various denominations of Judaism in Germany. There are thought to be some 500 Jewish members of the German military.

Bernhard Felmberg
'As an increasing number of Muslims are serving in the Bundeswehr, I expressly support giving these soldiers the option of pastoral care in their religion,' says Bernhard Felmberg, a Protestant military bishop in Germany

Representatives of Germany's ruling coalition support Islamic chaplaincy

Three representatives of the parties that make up Germany's coalition government also advocate for support for Muslim troops in the Bundeswehr: Konstantin Kuhle, the vice president of the neoliberal Free Democrats' parliamentary group; Aydan Özoguz, the parliamentary vice president and a member of the centre-left Social Democrats; and Filiz Polat, the parliamentary secretary for the centre-left Greens.

In May 2023, the trio called on the government to institute Islamic military pastoral care, arguing that such a chaplaincy must be a priority. They pointed out that the first graduates of the Islam College (lslamkolleg) of Germany, an educational institute for would-be imams in the city of Osnabrück in north-western Germany, had completed their training in February 2023.

According to information gathered by DW, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius responded some two months later, writing that this issue was of particular importance to him and that he had consequently approved an initial provision for Islamic pastoral care. He said this should occur in the current legislative period and that his ministry was in contact with the Islam College.

The Islam College, founded in late 2019, is not the only place in Germany where imams and other religious care providers can be trained. But few other institutes carry such great political hopes and expectations. This is due, among other things, to the specific actors involved and the project's academic ties.

Muslim troops 'not second or third-class soldiers'

In a phone call with DW, Islam College founding director Bülent Ucar said, "We've been hoping for an Islamic military chaplaincy for years." 

The Islamic scholar pointed to the current expansion of Jewish military pastoral care. On the Muslim side, he said, there's the desire for the "equal or similar provision of personnel and materials."

These are questions that don't necessarily need to be addressed in a state treaty, he added, but that need to be cleared up in the near future.

Muslims in the Bundeswehr are "not second or third-class soldiers," Ucar said, adding that the state must ensure there is pastoral care.

A spokesperson for the Defence Ministry confirmed to DW that since mid-March 2024, a specialist in the ministry has been developing a concrete pastoral care provision for Muslims in the Bundeswehr and will be overseeing its implementation. This "initial step" is aimed at broadening the existing Christian and Jewish pastoral care offerings. 

Christoph Strack

© Deutsche Welle 2024