MUNICH — It began nearly a year ago, on the weekend after Christmas. On Saturday night, unidentified individuals broke into a church in the Cologne district of Porz-Urbach. They broke open the safe in the sacristy and got hold of the key to the church. They ended up stealing money from the collection boxes, liturgical vessels, bowls and a monstrance. They weren’t able to get their hands on the Christmas collect because it had already been removed from the church.
In the following months, numerous churches in the greater Cologne area were broken into. Sometimes the thieves stole money and all manner of valuable objects in broad daylight. The police investigated and clues pointed to the possible involvement of Salafists who intended to use valuable holy objects from the churches to financially support jihad in Iraq and Syria. The suspicion was later confirmed by undercover investigations.
On Wednesday morning, the state prosecutor in Cologne and the federal public prosecutor’s office in Karlsruhe gave the signal: more than 240 officials mainly in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, but also in Lower Saxony and Bavaria began a spectacular raid.
In the North Rhine-Westphalia cities of Cologne, Siegen, Bergisch-Gladbach, Kreuztal and Netphen, they arrested a total of nine suspects, eight Germans: Mustapha A., 25, Kais B. O., 31, Lazhar B. O., 22, Sofien B. O., 35, Omar B. O., 25, Anoaur J., 25, Ali Ö., 23, and Usman A., 29, as well as a Pakistani citizen, Mirza Tamoor B., 58. The apartments of a further 20 persons on the Salafist scene were searched.
Burkhard Freier speaks of a "swamp" that investigators and the police "drained."
"It’s not the only swamp, but it’s a big one," says the head of North Rhine-Westphalia intelligence. It was a "successful day."
Capturing the "commuters'
For about a year and a half the state prosecution’s "Reise" investigating group working in tandem with the federal prosecution in Karlsruhe has had 44 people on their radar, all of whom are "Salafist extremists" according to Freier. They are known to both national intelligence and police and some of them are already on the wrong side of the law. The 44 persons of interest are mainly German citizens. "The arrests and searches show that security officials are on the ball and are using all legal means to fight extremist Salafists," said North Rhine-Westphalia’s Minister of the Interior Ralf Jäger.
The federal prosecution in Karlsruhe was involved in the strike against the Salafists, and for its part issued two arrest warrants. The authorities are accusing Kais B. O. and Mirza Tamoor B. of supporting terrorist organizations – the ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham and Junud al-Sham – and of having recruited for the ISIS in Germany.
Mirza Tamoor B. allegedly turned over to ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham a total of 3200 euros and a transport vehicle. Investigators are working on the assumption that Kais B. O. recruited at least three men from Germany for terrorist jihad in Syria.
According the North Rhine Westphalia intelligence chief, approximately one-third of these persons of interest are so-called commuters who travel between Germany and the war zones bringing goods and money. The suspects didn’t only break into churches and schools. They also raise money supposedly for humanitarian causes directly from clueless German citizens.
At monthly charity benefits that draw hundreds they raise sums up to six figures, says intelligence boss Freier. "We have to assume they’ve collected hundreds of thousands of euros and sent them on, he says.
In North Rhine Westphalia alone intelligence knows of some 40 extreme Salafist scenes, small groups that work in secret and are under observation. They are known as "loose networks." A soon as members start doing anything more than proselytizing and there is the danger that they will commit criminal acts then the observation goes undercover.
The most difficult thing is identifying individuals who get radicalized outside the framework of these groups, says Freier. "At the moment we don’t have any concrete indications that an attack is planned in Germany, but we need to stay on the alert because ever more men are joining the Salafist scene," he adds.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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