Turkish School 'Bans' Christmas; Stirs Outrage in Germany

Istanbul High School, an academy in Muslim-majority Turkey partly funded by the German government, caused a stir by canceling Christmas this year.

“The topic of Christmas traditions and celebrations will not be discussed, taught or sung about, effective immediately, according to the notice by the Turkish management,” the head of the school’s German department wrote in an email obtained by Germany’s DPA government news agency.

Several German teachers confirmed to the German Spiegel magazine that they were instructed to forego Christmas songs and traditions — and even remove advent calendars from school premises.

That’s right: No teaching Christmas customs. No Christmas celebrations. And no Christmas caroling.

The school choir even canceled its traditional Christmas concert performance at Germany’s consulate in Istanbul.

In a statement that has been removed from the website, the school’s administration denied any sort of Christmas ban. Instead, the administration said it was responding to actions by German teachers — there are approximately 35 at the school — that could seem to promote Christianity.

The German teachers dealt with “Christmas and Christianity in a way which the curriculum does not provide for,” the school administration argued. This use of Christmas when “viewed from the outside opens the door to [accusations] of manipulation.”

In other words, the politically correct “War on Christmas” has come to a part-German school in Turkey. Unlike in the United States, however, anger at this enforced censorship of the holiday caused bipartisan anger in the heart of Europe.

Germans considered this a big deal, because their government funds the school. German taxpayers pay about 1 million euros annually to support it. Many classes at Istanbul High School are taught in German, and the school is prestigious in Turkey — it counts at least three Turkish prime ministers as alumni.

German politicians attacked the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for creating an environment in Turkey — the birthplace of Saint Nicholas — which is hostile to celebrating Christmas.

“We don’t understand the surprising decision by the management of the Istanbul Lisesi,” Germany’s foreign ministry declared in a statement Sunday. Istanbul Lisesi is the Turkish name of the school. “It is too bad that the good tradition of pre-Christmas intercultural exchanges at the school with a long German-Turkish tradition has been suspended. We are of course taking this up with our Turkish partners.”

“The German government mustn’t accept the Christmas ban by the Turkish authorities,” Markus Söder, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), told the German outlet Bild. He later added, “Erdogan is consciously breaking the bridges to Europe.”

Andreas Scheuer, CSU’s secretary general, alleged that the school’s actions infringed upon religious freedom.

But it wasn’t just German conservative politicians in uproar. Left Party lawmaker Sevim Dagdelen called on Berlin to summon the Turkish ambassador and send an official protest to Ankara, in an interview with the Berlin paper Der ­Tagesspiegel.

Dagdelen condemned the AKP, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, as the ultimate culprit behind this war on Christmas. “It shows how far the AKP’s Islamist madness is going, if even Christmas is declared a taboo at a school, which is sponsored with German tax money,” the left-wing politician declared.

On Monday, Martin Schäfer, a spokesman for the German foreign ministry, emphasized the importance of German-Turkish relations and stood up for Turkey after the recent attack. He also expressed surprise that the issue had created a huge media echo in Germany.

“We let the media know yesterday that we found it hard to understand and were surprised that apparently the school administration gave the instruction not to talk about Christmas, sing Christmas songs and not to discuss the subject matter,” Schäfer recalled. “But this is not a Christmas ban. … Nobody in Turkey is banning anyone from celebrating Christmas.”

Turkish politicians seized on this response, and one posted pictures of Christmas trees on Twitter to illustrate the “Christmas ban.” AKP politician Mustafa Yeneroglu showed the pictures in a Tweet, adding (in German, not Turkish), “Some examples of christmas ban pictures in #Turkey. Should I ask for ramadan images in GER?”

While Schäfer and Yeneroglu are correct, their arguments clearly miss the point. Germans are outraged, not because the Turkish government reportedly pushed a ban on Christmas throughout the country, but because Christmas traditions long practiced by Istanbul High School are now being silenced.

This is classic “War on Christmas” fare, and the Germans will not put up with it.

Although Schäfer insisted that Turkey’s actions did not constitute a “Christmas ban,” he added that there have been fresh talks between the school administration and Turkish and German officials, and that “the problem” is “likely to be resolved shortly.”

“I’m very confident that the school will soon inform you that hopefully all misunderstandings have been resolved and that, of course, teachers at this school, which is right in tradition, will be able to talk about German Christmas customs,” Schäfer said.

Even this misses the point, however. What good is the ability to talk about customs, if you can’t hang an advent calendar in your classroom? Would it not be more painful to describe the history of German Christmas celebrations, while knowing you cannot sing Christmas carols? Perhaps one of the concerns may be dealt with, but Schäfer’s statement suggests the War on Christmas at Istanbul High school is here to stay.