The sexual harassment of women, some of whom were allegedly gang raped by immigrant men on New Year's Eve in Cologne and other German cities, has been sharply condemned by German bishops, who have, at the same, warned against general suspicion of Muslims.
"There must be no room for sexual violence or sexism anywhere in our country. Marauding hordes of men violated human dignity in the most shameful way on New Year's Eve," Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, emphasized in an interview with the website domradio.de a week after the events occurred.
Capping the number of refugees seeking asylum in Germany was certainly not a solution and the increasing incitement to hatred as a result was "most alarming," he said.
"A great deal of what I have been hearing here and following in the social media by way of incitement to hatred and blank hatred in the last few days is despicable and irresponsible," he said, quoting from one of the hundreds of hate mail he received: "There you are Woelki -- that's what happens! Now you can see what kind of soup you and your refugee Chancellor have landed us in with your culture of welcome!"
He himself could cope with hate mail, Woelki said, but he felt very sorry for his co-workers.
Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke, auxiliary bishop of Hamburg, where similar events to Cologne occurred, called on Germans to be patient and wait until full details of who the perpetrators were came to light. Interviewed at length by Vatican Radio, Jaschke, who is responsible for Christian-Muslim dialogue in the German bishops' conference, underlined that the church's main task was to urge the authorities to clarify who was responsible and to prevent blanket accusations against all foreigners and refugees.
Asked what role the treatment of women played in Christian-Muslim dialogue, Jaschke said that women certainly had a "different" role in Islam but sexually attacking them was "definitely" not permitted in Islam.
"It could be, however," he added, "that some Muslim men say that the way women behave in western society, their free demeanor and the tempting way they present themselves is not to Muslim men's liking. Nevertheless, one would have find out whether that is really true. Therefore, I do not want to discuss possible cultural reasons (for the assaults) until I really know the details."
Asked whether the events in Cologne could swing the generally positive attitude of Germans towards refugees, Jaschke said he thought it was possible, but that the church's duty was to protect both the victims and the refugees.
By mid-January, the number of criminal complaints filed since New Year's Eve in Cologne alone has risen to 516, 40 percent of which related to allegations of sexual assault, according to the German police. Thirty-two perpetrators have been found, namely nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, two Syrians and one Iraqi. Twenty-two of the offenders are asylum seekers.
An internal police report by an unnamed senior policeman in Cologne, which was leaked to SpiegelOnline, describes how only 200 members of the police force faced a crowd of 1,000 male immigrants, many of whom were under the influence of alcohol. According to the report, the immigrant offenders tore up their residence permits in front of the police and said, "You can't do anything to me as I'll fetch a new residence permit tomorrow." Some said, "I'm Syrian. You've got to treat me in a friendly way. Mrs. [Angela] Merkel [chancellor of Germany] invited me to come here."
Women crying for help were encircled by the men who stopped the police from coming to help or witnesses trying to give evidence, the report said.
Meanwhile, the chairman of Germany's Council of Ex-Muslims, Mina Ahadi from Cologne, warned that there are mosques in Germany where imams preach that women do not have the same rights as men.
"We must stop showing such people false tolerance," Ahadi said. "It is crucial for us to defend our freedom and our culture. This is Europe and it is western values that are valid here."
The former chief of police for violent crime in Oslo, Norway, Hanne Kristin Rohde, told the Austrian daily Salzburger Nachrichten that in 2011 it had come to light in Oslo that the majority of rape cases were committed by young Muslim immigrants. The Norwegian government decided to introduce courses for refugees on Norwegian values and on how to avoid violence.
Per Isdal, one of the psychologists in charge of the courses in Norway, said young immigrant men who are traumatized by war or dangerous conditions are often inclined to violence. "As a consequence, their wives, children and friends suffer," Isdal said.
Added to this, the cultural differences between certain societies in the Arab and African world, where women are often their husbands' property and have no legal rights at all, make things difficult for young male immigrants when they arrive in the west.
"The worst danger is hushing up these problems for the sake of political correctness," Isdal said.
Thirteen days after the attacks in Cologne, Woelki cautioned against "splitting and destabilizing" German society. He was "aghast" at the poisonous atmosphere that had set in and that "even the middle classes and lawyers are putting the state of law in question," he told the press.
It is crucial not to discredit all refugees.
"If one thousand football fans go on the rampage, we don't name and shame all football fans," he said.
[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]