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Echoes of the Past
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Germany Special Report

The Trouble With Intolerance

For many minorities, living in Germany
means living in fear

by Sarah Burrough
ifka, age 8, used to walk to school by herself. Now, she only does so in the company of other children. It is in keeping with her mother’s wishes, but she, too, knows it is prudent.

     She used to attract no attention as she walked down the street. But then certain neighbors noticed her walking by each day. “Gypsy,” said one, an adult, “you should tell your mama it is time to go back to where you came from.”

     That was the beginning. The next day as she walked by, the neighbor’s children—two boys—started teasing her and then chasing her. “Run, run, Gypsy rat!” they said. A few days later, they were there again, and this time they tried to get physical with her; only the intervention of two older children kept Rifka from getting hurt.

     Her mother sometimes found anti-Gypsy hatred scrawled on messages left at her door. Her husband had been threatened by co-workers who resented being passed up for promotion by “foreign scum.”

     They had complained—to the school officials, to his employer, even to the school board. Some offered soothing words; none took any action.

     And they are not alone.

     “It happens when I spend a lot of time in Germany and appear on television or there are a lot of press reports about me,” said Boris Becker, who announced he is leaving Germany with his wife and son after suffering years of intolerance and abuse, apparently owing to the fact that his wife is black. “Suddenly the lunatics come out of their holes and send threatening letters and so on. I ask myself if it’s worth it, to live in fear all the time,” he said.

     His conclusion? It is not.

      That a climate of fear exists for many in Germany may or may not be new news. That it can reach someone in Becker’s position reveals just how overt and powerful it has now become.

     But what of the Bosnian refugees forcibly deported from Bavaria last December back to a country left in ruins by years of fighting—to face the harsh realities of a bitter winter with no certainty of shelter, food or means of support?

     Bavaria’s Interior Minister, Guenter Beckstein, said it was necessary to send an unmistakable signal to all Bosnian refugees that the time had come for them “to go home”. Never mind that he was sending them home to perish in poverty or renewed violence.

Lord Duncan McNair Amnesty International Condemns Abuses

     Amnesty International catalogued 60 pages of abuses against foreigners in its May 1995 report “Federal Republic of Germany: Failed By the System—Police Ill-Treatment of Foreigners.”

     In July of that year, the report was strongly criticized by the Berlin Minister of Internal Affairs. In particular, the minister took umbrage at Amnesty’s claim that his was the only Ministry in Germany that had consistently failed to respond to their letters of concern.

     But this ignored the fact that any responses sent by the Ministry were devoid of any information on the specific cases of alleged abuses raised. Instead, they focused on requests for meetings, statistical information and copies of documents—and, in fact, the ministry’s information showed that they had substantially rejected most of those requests.

     Amnesty International’s 1996 report repeated the organization’s belief that a clear pattern of police ill-treatment of foreigners and ethnic minorities is emerging in Germany, as confirmed by the numerous reports they have received since last year’s publication.

     The chairman of the German police union, Hermann Lutz, denied Amnesty’s claim that the police treatment of a German journalist while he was reporting on a demonstration in Hamburg in 1994, amounted to torture. However, a Hamburg court did give the go ahead for trial proceedings against two officers. The journalist testified that he had been beaten repeatedly in the kidneys, pelvis and chest, and that his right foot had been deliberately twisted around by an officer until the ligaments tore.

Christian “Psycho-terrorists”

     More insidious are the methods by which fear is cultivated as a means of social control.

     In East Germany under totalitarian rule, everyone spied on everyone else and each reported the other to the Stasi. Now, it seems, that same system is used against anyone who isn’t the “correct” German or who does not adhere to the “correct” religious beliefs of the majority.

     “The only recognized churches in Germany are the Lutheran and Catholic churches,” explains Terry Jones of the Christian Church of Cologne, a non-traditional Christian denomination.

     Maligned in the media in ways which, in America, possibly only the very rich or the very famous could understand, Terry Jones and his congregation of 1,200 have been accused of such oddities as “praying for the sick”. For such crimes, they have been condemned as “psycho-terrorists.”

     “Anyone who stands for his beliefs is [considered suspect by] the government. They use methods of ostracizing us, banning us, outlawing us, defaming us,” says Wolfhard Margies, pastor of an independent Christian church in Berlin.

     The result: Repeated bomb and assassination threats, nuisance lawsuits, shattered church windows and more.

Alarmed by Intolerance

     Hearing rumors of what was going on, Lord Duncan McNair, a member of the British House of Lords, assembled a fact-finding delegation to find out first-hand what discrimination exists toward ethnic and religious minorities. Its members were profoundly affected by what they saw: Not only the effects of intolerance on individual lives, but the depth of official arrogance. (See “Echoes of the Past”.)

     “Despite clear evidence gained throughout the tour of widespread violations of international human rights agreements to which Germany is a signatory, the officials we saw said there was ‘no discrimination’ in their country,” fumed McNair.

      “We were completely unprepared for the sheer scale of prejudice, discrimination and even persecution which our witnesses recounted,” states their report.

     Most alarming, however, were the officials they spoke to. The majority seemed to regard as perfectly normal the hostility engendered in the population toward minority religions as a result of government and media attacks.

     Further, the group learned, legislation now exists in the state of Schleswig-Holstein that gives the local government the right to collect sensitive personal information and broadcast the identities of individuals associated with minority religions. They can therefore be blacklisted and ostracized according to plans acknowledged to exist by the government.

Widespread Complaints

     Numerous groups indicate that they have seen a rise in intolerance and violence against their members—with government consent or, at minimum, inaction.

     “Recently a resolution was advanced with the United Nations towards protecting Sinta and Roma [Gypsies] from harm and discrimination,” says Rudko Kawalski of the Sinta and Roma Council of Europe. “Germany was the only country to oppose this resolution. It is consistent with the fact that our people cannot walk the streets in safety, for fear that they may be attacked and receive no aid if they are”.

     “I cancelled a vacation to Turkey as I feared that my house would no longer be standing when I came home,” says Mohammed Salim Abdullah of the Islamic World Conference. “We cannot expect police protection or treatment like other Germans. My daughter was even greeted with a ‘heil Hitler’ salute as she got off her school bus one morning. A complaint was made, and officials said they would act, but in reality nothing was done. That is the pattern. Many of our people have been killed—more than a dozen—and many are unsolved, attributed only to ‘extremists.’”

     Yachana Shon of the Oshos (a religious group of Middle-East origin) says, “Tolerance of religion is not the case here, and that is permitted by officials. Tolerance is merely a word on a piece of paper. We are not allowed the rights which are written in the constitution.”

     “Germany has much to learn,” says Christopher Sprung of the Ba’hai Faith. “They must learn that there are more than two religions [Protestant and Catholic], that God put many religions on this earth, many paths.”

     There are a few non-minority voices calling for human rights inside Germany, but they seem to run so contrary to “conventional wisdom” as propagated by xenophobic officials that they gain little notice in the world at large.

     But, increasingly, human rights leaders familiar with the international scene recognize that there are a growing number of violations to accepted human rights standards in Germany. (See “International Outrage Grows Over German Intolerance”) Their challenge will be to bring awareness and change in the situation before it reaches levels that would lead historians years from now to ask why neither Germany nor the international community learned the lessons of history.

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