Bavarian crusade sparks political protest

State premier Söder orders ministries and public offices to display a cross in entrance halls

Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder hangs a cross in the entrance area of the state chancellery last Tuesday. Photograph:  Peter Kneffel/AFP/Getty Images

Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder hangs a cross in the entrance area of the state chancellery last Tuesday. Photograph: Peter Kneffel/AFP/Getty Images

 

While thousands of Berliners donned kippas this week in protest against rising anti-Semitism, Bavaria’s conservative state government has embraced the crucifix.

Bavaria’s new state premier, Markus Söder, issued a decree ordering all state ministries and public offices to display a cross in their entrance halls from June 1st.

Then Mr Söder underscored the surprise announcement with a photo opportunity: hanging a brass cross in the hallway of his state chancellery in Munich. But the politician’s public embrace of the cross, as a “symbol of Bavaria’s cultural and historical imprint”, has sparked a backlash.

Political rivals, media critics and even usually sympathetic outlets in Catholic, conservative Bavaria have united in criticising Mr Söder’s move as a cynical manoeuvre before October’s state election.

“Quite literally, nothing is sacred to Markus Söder,” said Christian Lindner, leader of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) in Berlin. Green Party co-leader Katrin Göring Eckardt, a Lutheran theologian, accused him of hijacking the cross “for a cheap election stunt” in public.

Headscarves

Muslim groups in Bavaria said that if crosses became commonplace, they would push back against efforts to ban women’s headscarves.

Mr Söder’s priority since taking over as Bavarian leader last month has been to boost the fortunes of his Christian Social Union (CSU), which has governed Bavaria uninterrupted for the entire post-war era.

But its absolute majority is in danger, according to polls, with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) threatening to eat into its support in October as it did at last September’s federal election.

Mr Söder has made a calculated gamble, confident his policy will appeal to frustrated CSU conservative voters outside Bavaria’s big cities, particularly those on the front lines of the 2015-2016 refugee crisis.

“I’m surprised that we talk about tolerance for other religions and don’t dare stand up for our own religion,” he told German public television.

The Bavarian leader knows, too, his policy is likely to spark a legal challenge at the constitutional court. In the past it has banned crucifixes from public buildings, and schools in Bavaria, citing the constitutional provisions that the state show religious neutrality.

St Sebastian

But any hearing, let alone a verdict, will come long after Bavaria’s election in October. “Until then he can present himself as St Sebastian,” joked Die Zeit in a hotly-discussed article on its website.

One reader agreed: “If the constitutional court lifts the ruling then Söder will look like a martyr. But the fuss shows how little people understand about how Bavaria ticks differently.”

Church leaders appeared less flattered than equivocal in their reaction to the news.

Bavarian bishop Reinhard Bedford-Strohm, head of the Lutheran church in Germany, welcomed the decision. Just as important as displaying the cross was “how it is filled with life”, he added, and urged the CSU to review its tough immigration policies in light of their rediscovered Christian ethos.