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‘Kruzifix!’ Bavaria decrees public buildings must display cross

Move seen as masterstroke in polarising politics as state’s secularists seethe

Has Bavaria’s new state premier, Markus Söder – a star pupil of the cute hoor school of politics – miscalculated? Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Ireland’s conservatives Catholics may have a new cross to carry since last week’s abortion referendum, but for conservative Catholics in Bavaria today is a very good Friday.

The Bavarian state government has decreed that from June 1st all public buildings must display a Christian cross. And not hidden away down the back stairs, but in a prominent position where everyone can see it. The decree has caused no end of debate in Germany, not least in the southern state so traditionally Catholic that it has given the German language the ironic-rustic swear word “Kruzifix!

That and many other epithets passed the lips of secular Bavarians when they first heard of the new rule a month ago. Bavaria’s new state premier, Markus Söder, just two weeks in office, announced the decree as a press opportunity by hanging a heavy brass cross in the hallway of his Munich chancellery as cameras whirred.

Describing the cross as a “symbol of Bavaria’s cultural and historical imprint”, the 51-year-old’s move was a master stroke in polarising politics that has secured weeks of free publicity.

Cynics have been unkind enough to suggest the move is less about evangelising than electioneering by a Bavarian politician with an election to win next October. His conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian pendant to Angela Merkel’s CDU, has ruled here continuously since 1957.

But its absolute majority is in danger because of a crumbling voter base: right-wing conservative voters still uneasy at the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 and its long shadow.

These voters, now being wooed by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), are – by complete coincidence – the very people happiest with the crucifix rule. For these conservative CSU voters in rural areas, the cross is as much a part of Bavaria as beer and brezen.

But Söder – a star pupil of the cute hoor school of politics – may have miscalculated on two points. First: the number of moderate CSU voters likely to be as turned off by the cross decree may outnumber the conservative voters who are turned on. Second: if Söder was hoping for applause from Bavaria’s clerics, he can think again.

Cardinal sin

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, said he welcomed all gestures by the state to the church. But anyone who viewed the cross only as a cultural symbol, Germany’s most senior Catholic cleric said, had missed the point.

“The cross cannot be imposed from above, because then it is co-opted in the name of the state,” said Cardinal Marx.

He insisted the cross “is not a sign against other people” and – in unusually harsh language – accused Mr Söder’s decree of spreading “division, unease and conflict”.

Backing him up was Thomas Stemberg, head of Germany’s leading lay Catholic organisation, who said the crucifix was “not suitable for election purposes”.

Even President Frank-Walter Steinmeier weighed into the debate, suggesting Söder was deliberately bending the intention behind a 1995 constitutional court ruling limiting the use of religious symbols in public places.

“Whatever we lack on Sunday in the church we won’t get in a public office during the week,” said Steinmeier.

New era

Ahead of the first day of the new era, Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung daily rang around public institutions in Bavaria to see who was going to hang up a cross – or risk crossing the state government.

The state library in Munich said it had a cross up in the entrance, bought for €59 from a leading church supplier. The Bavarian national museum, meanwhile, said it already had a collection of “extremely high-quality crucifixes” in its collection and was not planning to add another in the entrance hall.

Several art colleges have declined to follow the rule, saying their campuses were diverse institutions and they view the Söder decree as a recommendation rather than binding. Most other public institutions quizzed by the newspaper have adopted a wait-and-see approach.

A poll for the Bild am Sonntag newspaper suggested almost two-thirds of Germans were opposed to hanging crucifixes in public places, with just 29 per cent in favour.

Söder won’t be in Bavaria to police his new rule on Friday. Ever the political pro, he will, by complete coincidence, be visiting Pope Francis in the Vatican – and his retired, Bavarian predecessor, Benedict.