Von der Leyen mulls Muslim chaplains, says diversity “does us good”

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German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen speaks with dpa about the state of the German armed forces 60 years after its founding, discussing the possibility of Muslim chaplains and next steps in Germany’s peace-keeping mission in Mali.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen speaks with dpa about the state of the German armed forces 60 years after its founding, discussing the possibility of Muslim chaplains and next steps in Germany’s peace-keeping mission in Mali.

Berlin (dpa) – Diversity within the German armed forces is a key advantage as it juggles challenges across global peace missions, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told dpa, adding that the Bundeswehr is considering Muslim chaplains to support that diversity.

The defence minister spoke to dpa ahead of Thursday’s 60th anniversary of the launch of the German armed forces.

“The challenges are speed, simultaneity and the complexity of crises, and thus the multiplicity of operations ranging from Mali to Afghanistan, from refugee rescue in the Mediterranean to Ebola,” von der Leyen said.

But the defence minister rejected suggestions that the forces might be overstretched by a range of peace missions outside Germany.

“There were times when we had up to 10,000 personnel deployed. Currently it is about 3,000,” she said.

With these challenges in mind, von der Leyen stressed the value of personnel with non-German roots.

“I meet young service personnel who are wonderful interpreters as a result of speaking fluent Arabic,” von der Leyen said.

“Diversity does us good,” she added.

In a gesture to support that diversity, von der Leyen said Germany’s armed forces would consider appointing Muslim chaplains, though Muslim personnel may be too few and too scattered to justify the move yet.

The country’s three service arms already have Catholic and Lutheran chaplains who are paid from the military budget, and the move would be a fresh sign of acceptance for the 5 per cent of Germany’s population with Islamic roots.

“We are open to that sort of idea,” von der Leyen told dpa. “We are currently reviewing how large the need in the armed forces is and what alternatives might be available.”

The defence minister said it was a logistics issue, as the Muslim personnel lived and worked in many scattered locations.

Germany’s military has no official statistics on its Muslim makeup, as servicemen and -women are not required to state any religious affiliation when they enlist.

The most recent estimate was that 1,600 Muslims are among the 177,000 personnel in uniform.

Speaking on specifics on German missions abroad, von der Leyen said further consideration was needed before a decision could be made on expanding Berlin’s contribution to a force that is stabilizing Mali after Islamist extremists were pushed out.

“The soldiers would need to be in a position to defend themselves, but their mission is intelligence and support for the other international partners,” she said.

“We need more discussions, particularly with our Dutch partners and the United Nations, and at least one more fact-finding mission is required. The final decision will be taken either this year or at the start of next.”

Von der Leyen, formerly Germany’s labour minister, became defence minister two years ago.

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