German school in Istanbul repudiates ban on Christmas

A German-funded school in Istanbul has reneged on an earlier directive saying it would ban all things relating to Christmas. The school claimed that it was all a misunderstanding.

Schule Istanbul Lisesi (picture alliance/dpa/C.Merey)

Christmas has been deemed an acceptable topic after all for classroom discussions and activities at an elite public high school in Istanbul, following controversy at the German-funded school over what amounted to a ban on the Christian holiday.

“After a joint meeting between the Turkish school management and the directors of the German department, I can inform you that there is no prohibition on discussing ‘Christmas’ in classes,” an email circulated by the school said. The school added later that the whole affair had been “a misunderstanding.”

Istanbul Lisesi, founded in 1884, caters exclusively to Turkish students but places an emphasis on teaching the German language and communicating German values – including the cultural importance of Christmas. This reportedly extends, among other things, to teaching Christmas songs and hanging up advent calendars in classrooms each December.

Germany classifies the school as a Deutsche Auslandsschule (German International school).

Change after strong reactions in Germany

The effective Christmas ban had prompted uproar in Germany where German politicians had criticized the move as part of a larger change away from secularism across Turkey under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership.

Istanbul Lisesi (picture-alliance/dpa/L.Say)The elite school in central Istanbul has been embroiled in controvery after reports said it would ban Christmas

The German Foreign Ministry had called the initial decision “regrettable,” saying that the decision would affect the German-Turkish friendship at the school. German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer stressed that three Turkish prime ministers (Mesut Yilmaz, Necmettin Erbakan and Ahmet Davutoglu) had been educated at Istanbul Lisesi.

Numerous lawmakers had also expressed outrage. Frank Josef Jung, a lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), criticized the measure:

“If Germany is financing the teachers at this school, it has a say in what they teach,” said Jung at the time. Turkish-born lawmaker Sevim Dagdelen of the opposition Die Linke party, even went so far as to call the decision at the school a sign of “Islamic dictatorship” in Turkey.

Turkish MP voices outrage on social media

Mustafa Sentop, a member of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), meanwhile expressed his disapproval of the reversal of the school directive, commenting that the German-Turkish school was allegedly engaging in religious activity by promoting Christmas and referring to the Christmas lessons as “missionary education at a state school” on social media.

He also contended on Twitter that teachers at the school had “gone as far making mulled wine and serving it to the students earlier.”

Sentop took particular umbrage to the involvement of German politicians in the issues, tweeting, “Get a hold of yourselves. This is Turkey. A state school cannot allow this nation’s children to be subjected to the religious and political propaganda of the German government.”

Critics of President Erdogan’s government and his AKP say that he is actively eroding modern Turkey’s constitutionally enshrined brand of secularism, including by imposing a more Islam-focused education system.

Tit-for-tat diplomacy?

The initial decision to prohibit the mention of Christmas at the school came one week after the school’s choir was prevented from singing at the German consulate in Istanbul. While the motivation for that decision remains unknown, it is assumed that the frail security situation in Turkey prevented the German embassy from welcoming the students at this point.

A long series attacks this year in Istanbul and the capital city, Ankara, have resulted in increased security measures taken at locations of high importance across the country.

ss/rc (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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