All imams who work in Germany will in future have to prove they can speak the German language, under a draft law for religious leaders introduced by the government.
The bill, which passed cabinet on Wednesday, means that foreign preachers will only be granted work visas if they can demonstrate basic German. They would then need to show improvements in their language skills after a year in order to prolong their stay.
Although it applies to all religious preachers, the coalition treaty signed by the German government - which includes the rule - specifically refers to imams.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer hailed it as “a vital contribution for successful integration in Germany.” The government justified the move by saying that imams have a central role to play as models of integration for other immigrants, who often turn to mosques for help when they first arrive.
However, the media has reported concerns about clerics preaching in other languages for several years.
There are no official figures on the number of mosques in Germany, nor on where their funding comes from. But authorities suspect that Gulf states including Saudi Arabia have been financing the construction of some mosques in order to spread the fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam practised on the Arabian peninsula. Conservatives complain that, as long as imams preach in other languages, they will feel free to espouse views hostile to democracy.
But Germany's Green party attacked the draft law, saying it will exacerbate the already acute shortage of imams to serve the country’s growing Muslim population. According to a recent study, over 90 percent of imams active in Germany come from abroad.
Criticism also came from the Islamic community. Bekir Altaş, head of the Millî Görüş mosque association, said that many Muslim associations had made German language skills a requirement for preaching in their mosques years ago.
“The government’s plans smack of populism. The portrayal of language skills equating with ‘good imams’ is dangerous - it downplays German-speaking hate preachers who use their rhetorical abilities to gain notoriety, while ignoring the good work done by other preachers in their native tongue,” Altaş said.
The bill now goes to the Bundestag, where it is expected to be approved.