Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Winfried Verburg {*}

Jews, Christians and Muslims Form a Precedent

An Experiment of the Diocese of Osnabrück Oriented Towards Interreligious Dialogue


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 1/2011, P. 3-12
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Diocese of Osnabrück dares an interreligiously oriented experiment: a school that makes trialogic learning its aim. Winfried Verburg, head of the department schools and university in the Episcopal general vicariate presents the project that shall bring together Jews, Christians and Muslims at a place of learning.


Karl-Josef Kuschel sees a new reflection on the simultaneity of the coexistence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as a theological challenge of the present time.

"What signal does God send with the fact that despite all the hostile rejection in the past all three: Synagogue, Church and Umma coexist? What do they mean for each other in their threefold and triply different commitment to the one God, the Creator, Preserver and Judge of world and man?" {1}

Consequently, he calls for the creation of places of learning that bring together "in the spirit of Abraham Jews, Christians and Muslims" {2}. The place of learning par excellence in our society is the school. It would therefore be logical that also schools where Jews, Christians and Muslims meet each other become places of learning the trialogue. In many schools in Germany the co-existence of Christians and Muslims is an experience of everyday school life. However, Georg Langenhorst is correct in stating that "Only in a few schools an encounter with Jewish schoolfellows is possible." {3} But for the trialogue the experience of coexistence of all three Abrahamic religions is a requirement.

If a school shall become an interreligious, trialogic place of learning, one must create conditions that students of all three religions attend this school and that at the same time teachers of all three religions are active there. Since the school is able to guarantee a lasting encounter for several years, it provides very good preconditions for this {4}. Besides the legal conditions, there is needed also an educational programme that is attractive for parents and teachers of all three religions.

A privately maintained school without a fixed school catchment area can create the necessary conditions. For this status allows Jewish, Christian and Muslim children to attend this school, regardless of place of residence. At the same time the status of a private school, i.e. nobody is compelled to attended it, allows the primacy of positive freedom of religion. At a Catholic school religion can and should be lived also outside of religious instruction. Nobody is forced to profess there his/her faith. On the other hand, no one can expect that the school programme is oriented towards the wishes of parents or students to be not confronted with religion. For those who prefer this in school education, a school in public ownership is suitable as an alternative.



Vision of a Trialogic School

Based on these considerations, the diocese of Osnabrück is currently planning a privately maintained Catholic primary school in Osnabrück. On the basis of the guiding principles of the school foundation {5} "trialogic learning" {6} shall be made possible through lasting encounter. This step is encouraged by the positive experiences of the education authorities with Muslim students who at a Catholic school exemplarily receive Islamic religious instruction in cooperation with the Chair of Islamic Religious Education at the Osnabrück University {7}. According to the diocese, the city of Osnabrueck where the tradition of the Peace of Westphalia is cultivated is a good location for such a model project. And the conditions are not least given because the Jewish community now has more members than before 1938.

Despite all attempts to proceed in a religiously sensitive way, such a school of trialogic learning cannot be developed and organized by the Catholic institution alone, even with the greatest willingness to a change of perspective. It was clear from the outset that the conception of a school with this goal could only be developed by working together with partners. The diocese therefore approached the Jewish community Osnabrück and the Islamic Shura eV, the merger of mosque associations in Lower Saxony, which includes five of the six mosque associations in the city. Both the Jewish and Islamic side welcomed this initiative from the beginning, and the further planning was closely coordinated by the cooperation partners. The so formed concept of a Catholic school for Jews, Christians and Muslims was presented to the public for discussion.

All cooperation partners concur in the vision of a learning community of students, parents, and teachers of the three monotheistic religions, i.e. of people who become deeper aware of their common ground, and are thus able to meet respectfully followers of different religious beliefs, and to work and live with them. For all three religions it is not about organizing a school solely on the basis of the "greatest common denominator", while excluding the differences. What matters is training the identity of people of different beliefs in the One God who has spoken to Abraham, and their ability to talk to each other. These three religions which refer to Abraham as their ancestor have a common base, and common ethical principles derived from it. For to invoke Abraham means:



"To question one's own actions time and again" (as Abraham at turning points in life has always sought God's advice, see Gen 15.2-17);
"Avoiding disputes by compromise" (Gen 13.8-12);
"Meeting strangers in a hospitable and open way" (Gen 18.2-8);
"Acting honestly and correctly as regards business" (Gen 23.7-16);
"Commitment to people even if they are strangers and are perhaps guilty" (Gen 18.23-32) and
"As victor not to cheat the opponent" (Gen 14.14-16) {8}.


A Place of Learning the Interreligious Dialogue

For the sake of the common ground and "familiarity" {9}, it has to be a school for children of the three religions referring to Abraham, i.e. for Jews, Muslims and Christians. The familiarity is based on a common theological heritage with religio-pedagogical consequences. The methods and goals of the religious education of the Semitic religions with their personal concept of God and the fundamental belief that God reveals himself to men for their salvation's sake correspond much more to each other than to the methods and objectives of other religions {10}. The school can and must then be oriented towards the biblical Abraham.

"In the 'Abrahamic religions' and regions, the biblical Abraham, who is open with the unknown strangers and offers excellent hospitality (Gen 18), has rightly become the symbol and archetype of frankness and openness in the dialogue with God and man. His manner of meeting offers the model for an exchange that allows the coexistence of professing one's own identity, but besides and beyond this it makes a joint position before the infinite majesty and mercy of the one God possible." {11}

Langenhorst, however, has rightly pointed out that the "royal road" of trialogic learning through personal encounters is usually not feasible, because at the few schools where this was possible at all, "the numerical imbalance is so overwhelming that one from a Christian perspective must concede a supersaturation of the potential interlocutor" {12}. That's why the submitted school concept, according to the contractual agreement between the partners, provides for every religion one third of the places at the school, and attempts thus to minimize this point of criticism. Children without religious affiliation can be admitted if their parents approve of the concept and places are available.

This school shall instruct the young people who have been entrusted to it. It shall give them the freedom to shape their life according to their religion, by devoutly trusting in the One God, who is living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to Abraham and to people and will judge mankind on the Last Day (Nostra Aetate 3).



It should also instruct them to become acquainted with and accept the otherness of the religion of their classmates - in the encounter with what is alien to them. By discussion and exchange, they obtain a better understanding of the beliefs of the religiously motivated way of life of their fellow pupils and of their own {13}.

For this purpose, the school makes in many different ways the religious beliefs, lifestyles and rites of the three religions involved the subject of instruction. Religious knowledge and religious practice, respectful encounter and peaceful understanding in spite of different religious beliefs are central educational objectives. In order to enable living and learning together besides the teaching time, the school shall be organized as a binding all-day school [gebundene Ganztagsschule], because this type of school is most suitable for reducing educational disadvantages.

Without fixing concrete quotas, the cooperation partners agree that Jewish, Muslim and Christian teachers shall in this school not only hold the respective religion classes but also teach other subjects. In the sense of positive freedom of religion, in this school the teachers are outside of religious instruction not obliged to ideological neutrality but to respect and tolerance for the religious beliefs of students, parents, and colleagues who belong to other religions.

Under these conditions, the school shall contribute - in the tradition of the Peace of Westphalia within the city and beyond - to the mutual understanding among people who belong to one of the three Abrahamic religions. For the Church, the Jewish community and the Mosque communities this school shall become a place of learning the interreligious dialogue and the cooperation of different religions.


Trialogue - a theologically sound task of a Catholic school?

The concept of this school is based on central statements of the Second Vatican Council. These determine on the one hand the Church's relationship with the two other participating religions, and on the other hand they describe the task of Catholic schools:
1. Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God

"Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. ... But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. (Lumen Gentium 16) {14}.



2. Call for mutual knowledge and respect:

"The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men."
The sacred synod urges all "to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom" (Nostra Aetate 3).
"Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect" (ibid. 4) {15}.

3. Also non-Catholic students are accepted in the spirit of love of Christ in Catholic schools, without restrictions on the freedom of their religious commitment:

"The proper function of the Catholic school is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity" (Gravissimum educationis 8).
It is the responsibility of the Church and the Catholic schools, "to care for the needs of those who are poor in the goods of this world or who are deprived of the assistance and affection of a family or who are strangers to the gift of Faith" (ibid. 9).

4. The right to religious education, and connected with it the free choice of a privately funded school, is a general parental right, and therefore not only Catholic parents are entitled to it:

"Parents, moreover, have the right to determine, in accordance with their own religious beliefs, the kind of religious education that their children are to receive. Government, in consequence, must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education, and the use of this freedom of choice is not to be made a reason for imposing unjust burdens on parents, whether directly or indirectly." (Dignitatis Humanae 5).

This theological foundation makes the school not only a place of learning the interreligious dialogue. It can also make an important contribution to the Church's social responsibility for the common good of society, and is a step on the way to "unite its efforts with those of all men and women of good will, with the followers of other religions and with non-believers, so that this world of ours may effectively correspond to the divine plan: living as a family under the Creator's watchful eye." {16}.

But how is the schooling of Jewish and Muslim students reconcilable with the task of a "Catholic school which as educational community wants ultimately to lead to faith" {17}? Are the selfless service to non-Christian young people and the dialogue with them in accordance with this task of evangelization?



If Catholic schools are places of practised faith, and if their school culture is shaped by service and dialogue, then they can fulfil their proper function "to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity" (Gravissimum educationis 8), which the Second Vatican Council ascribes to the school. "Service and dialogue are the ways in which the gospel comes into the world." {18} This applies also to the service to non-Christian young people and to the dialogue with them. Such a school culture combines the freedom of the Catholic school to proclaim the message of the Gospel and to represent the values of the Christian faith with respect for the freedom of religion and freedom of conscience of non-Christian students, as the Congregation for Catholic Education emphasized in 1988:

"Not all students in Catholic schools are members of the Catholic Church; not all are Christians. The religious freedom and the personal conscience of individual students and their families must be respected, and this freedom is explicitly recognized by the Church. On the other hand, a Catholic school cannot relinquish its own freedom to proclaim the Gospel and to offer a formation based on the values to be found in a Christian education; this is its right and its duty. To proclaim or to offer is not to impose, however; the latter suggests a moral violence which is strictly forbidden, both by the Gospel and by Church law." {19}


Encounter of Religions in School

At this school, the encounter of religions is to be implemented not only through the encounter of pupils of different religions, because this is possible also in other schools and is often already reality. At this in Osnabrück planned elementary school, Jews, Christians and Muslims shall not only jointly attend the school but together form the school life [Schule machen]. School life should be sensitive to the concerns resulting from the religious convictions of all those who belong to the educational community {20}, but it should also be shaped by the presence of those religions. Elements of this presence are the respective religious education, projects on religious topics, the respective religious festivals and special times of the religions in the course of the school year, and the deliberate integration of religiously motivated ways of life into school life.

1. Religious Instruction. All students take part in the religious instruction of their religion. Catholic religious instruction is held in ecumenical openness. Given an appropriate number of pupils, also Protestant religious education is offered. A denominational cooperation is possible at times. Jewish religious instruction is offered in cooperation with the Jewish community Osnabrück, Islamic religious instruction is designed and given in cooperation with the Department of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Osnabrück {21}.



In this school the juxtaposition of and the temporary cooperation among the various subjects of the Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Islamic religious instruction will be possible in practice. Since this school is located in close proximity to the University of Osnabrück, where RE teachers are trained in Islamic, Protestant and Catholic religious instruction, it provides a practice field for cooperation.

2. Phases (e.g. project days) of intensive interreligious learning: Students present each other the results, which they have previously elaborated in their respective RE in accordance to the topics fixed by the (expert) conferences, and jointly work out the differences and commonalities. By listening to and experiencing the religious testimonies and the ways of practised faith of their peers, the students' awareness [Wahrnehmungskompetenz] shall be promoted, i.e. the ability to see things from the perspective of their Jewish or Muslim classmates {22} and their ability for dialogue. Dialogue is regarded as the reverent perception of other people's genuineness and of one's own task to profess one's faith in the things perceived as being true {23}.

In respect for other religious beliefs, the students are to become ready and able to find differences and commonalities, and to present in their own words the doctrine and practice of their religion to their classmates. In this way the basis for tolerant behaviour could be established, an attitude that is not shaped by indifference and lack of an own standpoint. They learn to understand their own religious positions better, and to respect thus the beliefs of others, to accept the lasting strangeness, and at the same time to bear witness to one's own position. Acting together out of religious motives (e.g. by supporting social projects) promotes social skills {24}. These interdisciplinary projects are not only a place of learning for students and their teachers, but are also a new field of learning for religious communities {25}.

3. Exercise of religious practice: School life is shaped by the religious festivals of the Abrahamic religions, which are organized by the school community. Where it is possible for religious reasons, makes sense with regard to religious education, and can be organized at school the children of all three religions are involved {26}. Joint meals in compliance with the conditions of the religious communities, interior design with religious symbols (menorah, cross, crescent) and daily or weekly religious impulses at the start or end of the school day {27} enable the authentic experience of the religiously shaped way of life of others. Taking into account the different religiously shaped ways of life, the school will jointly develop rules for this kind of living together.

4. Room for seemingly purpose-free things: In the spirit of the by all three religions shared conviction that the value of people cannot only be assessed by their (school) performance, in this school must be room for seemingly purpose-free things, as e.g. church services and activities in the artistic and aesthetic field.



A school programme that meets the requirements of this framework, makes high demands on the religious competence of all teachers, especially on the religion teachers. This expertise of the teachers has to be strengthened by joint advanced training of the cooperation partners. The focus is then on the knowledge of their religion (from the participant's perspective) and their ability to provide information about the doctrine and the expressions of practised faith, and at the same time on their openness to dialogue with people of different religious beliefs in this educational community 'school'.


Trialogic Advice of the Body Responsible for the School - The Advisory Board

The responsible body for this school cannot know the specific expectations and wishes of the members of other religions in the school community. That's why experts in this field shall advice the school and its committees, the school inspectorate, and the responsible body as regards the conception and embodiment of the religious profile of the school. From the perspective of the responsible body, the founders of the school, an open religio-sensitive organization of school life is only possible with the active participation of expert representatives of the other religions.

This panel of experts is an additional body: the advisory board of the school. According to the cooperation agreement of the three partners it is made up as follows: the school administration, one RE teacher of each religion involved, representatives of the parents (of all three religions if possible), representatives of the responsible body resp. of the ecclesial education authorities, of the Peace City Osnabrück (if this is wanted by the town), of the Jewish community of Osnabrück, of the Catholic parish in which the school is located, of the Protestant Church, of the Muslims.

Its function is to advise. As in all independent schools of the School Foundation, the decisions are for the given situation made by the school council, the school administration, and the responsible body. The advisory board is responsible for fundamental issues which are not reserved to the school committees, and advises the body responsible for the school in important questions regarding the religious profile of the school. It must be heard prior to decisions of the school council and the body responsible for the school, if these apply to the distinctive religious profile of the school: particularly the development of the school programme, the organization of the extra-curricular school life, the curricula of religious education, the presence of the religious communities in the school, and decisions on religious symbols in classrooms.



Parents, students or employees of the school can appeal to the advisory board if they see their freedom of religion significantly restricted by regulations or practice of the school. In such cases it has to prepare recommendations for the respective decision-makers.

This advisory board, which is designed to establish the school as place of trialogic learning, becomes thus a place where the participating religious communities enter into this Trialogue.



{1} K.-J. Kuschel, Trialogisch denken lernen. Zum Entwurf einer Theologie von Juden, Christen u. Muslimen. in: Religionsunterricht an höheren Schulen (rhs) 51 (2008) 262-270, 266 f.

{2} In the same place 268 f.

{3} G. Langenhorst, Trialogische Religionspädagogik. Konturen eines Programms, in: rhs 51 (2008) 289-298, 295.

{4} See in the same place 297.

{5} School foundation in the diocese Osnabrück, guiding principles of 10.3.2009, see

{6} About this concept see St. Schreiner, Trialog der Kulturen. Anmerkungen zu einer wegweisenden Idee, in: Trialogisch lernen. Bausteine für interkulturelle u. interreligiöse Projektarbeit, edited by C. P. Sajak (Seelze 2010) 18-24.

{7} The separate development of a curriculum was necessary for it, because this school is country-wide the sole school that offers Islamic religious instruction within the secondary level (classes 5-10); the school pilot project of Lower Saxony in public schools was at that time still confined to the primary level (classes 1-4); see W. Verburg, Islamischer Religionsunterricht an katholischen Schulen?, in: Worauf es ankommt (FS Konrad Baumgartner), edited by Th. Glück and H. Mendl (Winzer 2009) 243-251.

{8} A. Brum, Der trialogische Wettbewerb aus jüdischer Perspektive, in: Trialogisch lernen (note 6) 4955,51.

{9} Kuschel (note 1) 268.

{10} See A. Renz, Spirituelle Dimensionen erzieherischen Handelns in den nichtchristlichen Weltreligionen, in: Zum Leben führen. Handbuch religionspädagogischer Spiritualität, edited by M. Langer and W. Verburg (München 2007) 77-97, 96.

{11} M. Görg, Abraham als Ausgangspunkt für eine „Abrahamitische Ökumene"?, in: Lernprozeß Christen Muslime. Gesellschaftliche Kontexte — Theologische Grundlagen — Begegnungsfelder, edited by A. Renz and St. Leimgruber (Münster 2002) 142-151,150. — About Abraham's hospitality see D. Krochmalnik, Abrahamische Gastfreundschaft in Bibel u. Talmud, in: Gastfreundschaft. Ein Modell für den konfessionellen Religionsunterricht, edited by H. Schmid and W. Verburg (München 2010) 48-56.

{12} Langenhorst (note 3) 294.

{13} About it see C. P. Sajak, Miteinander Lernen im Trialog. Eine christliche Perspektive, in: Trialogisch lernen (note 6) 64-72,70.

{14} See also Leitlinien für das Gebet bei Treffen von Christen, Juden u. Muslimen. Eine Handreichung der deutschen Bischöfe, edited by Sekretariat der DBK (Arbeitshilfen Nr. 170, Bonn 2008) 32 f.

{15} About the reasons for a dialogue of cultures and religions as essential element of the Universal Church in Nostra aetate see M. Eckholt, Dogmatik interkulturell. Globalisierung — Rückkehr der Religionen — Übersetzung — Gastfreundschaft (Nordhausen 2007) 45-53.

{16} Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, no. 57.

{17} Kongregation für das Katholische Bildungswesen, Der katholische Laie — Zeuge des Glaubens in der Schule (VApSt 42, Bonn 1982) No. 43.



{18} K. Lehmann, 40 Jahre Konzilsbeschluß „Gravissimum educationis" — Perspektiven u. Auftrag für die katholischen Schulen, in: Katholische Schule heute. Perspektiven u. Auftrag nach dem Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, edited by G. and C. P. Sajak (Freiburg 2006) 32-51,36; In addition to it: „Dienst und Dialog als wesentliche Formen der Evangelisierung sind von einem personalen Angebot nicht zu trennen" (in the same place 43).

{19} Kongregation für das katholische Bildungswesen, Die religiöse Dimension der Erziehung in der Katholischen Schule (7. April 1988), in: Handbuch Katholische Schulen, volume 1, edited by R. Ilgner (Köln 1994) 121-161, No. 6.

{20} For instance the refraining from class tests at special holydays of the three religions.

{21} This happens in imitation of the school pilot project "Islamic religious instruction" at the primary level in Lower Saxonia.

{22} See A. Bucher, „Die beten auch" — Zur Entwicklung der Perspektivenübernahme, in: rhs 49 (2006) 203-210.

{23} In the sense of „Hermeneutics of mutual recognition in truthfulness" see K. E. Nipkow, Bildung in einer pluralen Welt, volume 2 (Gütersloh 1998) 361.

{24} See H. Kohler-Spiegel, Identität u. Begegnung mit dem Fremden. Ziele, Reichweite u. Grenzen interreligiösen Lernens im schulischen Religionsunterricht, in: rhs 49 (2006) 215-222; St. Leimgruber, Interreligiöse Bildung in der Schule. Eine katholische Perspektive, in: Engagement 4 (2007) 296-311.

{25} See H. Schmid, Wie der islamische Religionsunterricht die Gesellschaft verändert, in: KatBl 135 (2010) 136-141,140.

{26} See J. Lähnemann, Türen öffnen — Interreligiöses Lernen als Herausforderung, in: KatBl 127 (2002) 397-401.

{27} From the Catholic viewpoint, the organization of joint prayer and of prayer in the presence of believers of the two other religions is oriented towards the guidelines of the German Bishops' Conference (see note 14).


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'