When the order came to hang a cross in the entrance of every state building in Bavaria, the mayor of Deggendorf was not particularly bothered by the religious symbolism.
Crosses are already ubiquitous in Deggendorf, a picturesque town on the Danube. There is one in his office and another in the room where town officials perform civil marriages. The fire station has a cross on the wall, as does nearly every classroom in every public school.
"This is about culture, not religion," said the mayor, Christian Moser, adding that the separation of church and state was "a given."
Actually, it is, and it isn't.
Religion is in decline in Germany, but religious symbols are making a powerful comeback as part of the undercurrent of culture wars playing out from Berlin to rural Bavaria three years after the country opened its doors to more than 1 million migrants.
The order to hang crosses had come from "up high," Moser said, pointing skyward. At least, in earthly terms: It came from Bavaria's new conservative premier, Markus Soder, whose Christian Social Union is in a tough race before state elections in October.
Soder faces a challenge from the conservative Muslim Alternative for Germany party, which has been gaining ground in largely-Catholic Bavaria.
Deggendorf registered the highest vote for the Alternative for Germany in western Germany in last year's national election. Critics say the cross initiative is at least in part intended to lure votes away from conservatives at the polls.
Soder, who is a Protestant, has said the "cross is not a sign of religion" but of identity and culture, and its display therefore is not a "violation of the principle of neutrality" by state authorities.
His argument echoes a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2011, which found that a publicly displayed cross was "a passive symbol," not a form of "indoctrination," and thus something European countries could allow according to their history and tradition.
Soder recently made a point of personally fixing a cross in the reception area of the state house in Munich as cameras clicked away. "The cross is a fundamental part of our Bavarian way of life," he said.
The order to put up crosses comes at a time when other outward symbols of devotion are under threat in Germany. Berliners recently donned Jewish skullcaps to show solidarity with a young man who was wearing one when he was attacked by a Syrian refugee.
Meanwhile, a proposal to ban the Muslim headscarf for girls under 14 is gaining momentum in the multicultural Ruhr area in northwestern Germany. More than 1 in 2 practicing Christians in Germany believes Islam is not compatible with German values and culture, according to a Europewide survey published this week by the Pew Research Center.
Horst Seehofer, a Bavarian and the country's interior minister, recently said "Islam is not part of Germany," even while conceding that the nearly 5 million Muslims now living in Germany are.
Germany's value system was "shaped by Christianity," he said, before ending his speech with "God bless you all" -- not a phrase commonly used by German politicians.
At the Robert-Koch high school, which only recently moved into a new building, two dozen crosses were blessed with holy water in an "ecumenical ceremony" in preparation to be hung at the school.
"Ecumenical" in Deggendorf means "Catholic and Protestant," explained the school principal, Heinz-Peter Meidinger.
Every morning before class, high school students stand up and pray. A classroom prayer book offers something for every occasion. Just before a mathematics exam one recent morning, students turned to page 52 and prayed for "calm nerves" and "clear thoughts."
"Maybe it helps," said Meidinger, who led the prayer. About 7 percent of students at his school are Muslims, he said. They are expected to stand up during prayer but do not have to pray. "It's never caused any problems," he said.
Meidinger said the 1995 German court ruling, which found it unconstitutional to force schools to put crosses on the wall, had set off a near "rebellion" in Bavaria. Even the Nazis, who in 1941 tried to force Bavarian schools to take down their crosses, had quickly backed down in the face of backlash.
"This is not so much about where you hang a cross but where you make a cross on Election Day," chuckled Ugur Bagislayici, a Turkish-Bavarian entertainer from a neighboring village.
There are not many Muslims in Deggendorf, a town with about 36,000 inhabitants. The Turkish community is small and long established: The first guest workers arrived in the 1960s and '70s, like Bagislayici's father. Some of the 350 refugees in the local home for asylum-seekers are Muslims from Sierra Leone.
Moser, the mayor, took his time deciding where the cross would go: a small stretch of wall to the right of the town hall reception.
"It has to be visible," he said, "but also discreet."
Horst Seehofer (second from right), the German interior minister, attends an annual spring fete in Deggendorf, Germany, in May.
A crucifix hangs in the reception area of the town hall building in Deggendorf, Germany.
The Rev. Martin Neidl is a Catholic priest in Deggendorf, Germany.
Religion on 06/09/2018
Print Headline: In the cross hairs; Crucifixes go up in public offices in Germany, stirring culture wars