Religion is gradually in decline in Germany, but religious symbols are making a powerful comeback as a new law has been enacted into force in the German state of Bavaria requiring crosses to be hung in the entrances of all the public buildings.
The decree stipulates that a “cross should be hung in a visible place, in the entrance hall of every office building as an expression of Bavaria’s social and cultural identity”. It affects all ministries, police stations and courts, but it is non-binding on museums, opera houses and theatres.
Markus Söder, Bavaria’s prime minister and author of the measure said it was an “affirmation of our cultural and historical, as well as our spiritual values”.
Crosses are already ubiquitous in Deggendorf, a picture-perfect town on the Danube. There is one situated 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.
Mr Söder — whose Christian Social Union has governed Bavaria for decades — said the cross was an “integral part of our religion, but it also belongs to the foundations of the state”.
But critics say that the systematic display of a Christian symbol in the reception of government buildings inevitably waters down the separation of state and religion and could reinforce the tension.
Germany’s version of separation of state and church is less strict than those in France and the United States, but it is not quite the British or Scandinavian models either, where there is a state church. The Germans do something in between.
The new decree is expected to show how important issues of cultural and religious identity have grown massively in Germany since the refugee crisis of 2015-16 when the country let in more than 1m migrants.
Conservative politicians have lined up to assert the supremacy of this traditional German values and vie with each other in condemning other religious practices.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, called it a “provocation, for every Christian, for the Church, but also for the state”. Speaking to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in April, he said that the new rule had sown “division, unrest [and] conflict” in society.
Cardinal Marx suggested there should be a public debate in Germany about what it meant to live in a country with a Christian identity. “But you have to involve everyone — Christians, Muslims, Jews, those who do not believe,” he said.
Many in Bavaria see the cross debate as part of Mr Söder’s preparations for the regional elections in October when the CSU, sister party to Angela Merkel’s CDU, will seek to defend its absolute majority in Bavaria’s parliament.
The CSU is eager to win back disaffected conservative voters who have switched to the far-right, anti-immigration alternative for Germany. Some in Germany have accused Mr Söder of using the cross for political purposes, which poses to be a selfish interest. “He is abusing the cross for his election campaign and deliberately mixing up religion and politics,” said Claudia Roth, a prominent Green MP.
The CSU has hit back, with its secretary-general Markus Blume calling critics of the decree “enemies of religion”.
The measure has proven popular with voters. A recent poll by Bavarian Radio found 56 per cent of the Bavarian population was in favour and 38 per cent against. However, there has been no noticeable improvement in the CSU’s ratings, which are stable at around 42 per cent.
Mr Söder earned a widespread ridicule when he publicly announced the decree by himself installing a large cross in the entrance to the state chancellery. Die Welt compared him to Abraham van Helsing, the vampire hunter and crucifix-wielding arch-enemy of Dracula.
It is the second time in 25 years that Bavaria has provoked national debate over its policy on crosses. In 1995 Germany’s highest court struck down a Bavarian regulation that obliged schools to put up crosses in all classrooms, saying that such a requirement was unconstitutional.
But it said that if parents and school authorities did not object to the crosses, they could remain in the same place. In the end, most did stay.