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At least a million people peacefully rang in 2013 at Germany’s largest New Year’s party in Berlin on Monday night.

Organizers of the two-kilometre-long celebration in front of the German capital’s icon Brandenburg Gate said they had broken the million mark of revelers. Entrances to the party zone in Berlin’s centre were closed hours before the turn of the year due to the huge turnout.

Drawn by a 15-minute fireworks display with more than 6,000 rockets at midnight, visitors also came to see an international lineup of musical acts including The Pet Shop Boys. The large crowd also hopped to the horsey dance made famous by 2012’s suprise South Korean pop hit “Gangnam Style.”

The police said the gathering remained largely peaceful without major incidents.

Across Germany, revelers gathered to say goodbye to the old year and hello to the new one. From Cologne to Munich, hundreds of thousands watched the sky light up at midnight over the country.

Germans spent an estimated €115 million on fireworks, according to the Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.

DAPD/The Local/mry

After years of steady progress, a new study shows German customer service seems to be sliding back into its old surly ways. Have you noticed a decline - or do you think it's so bad it couldn't possibly get any worse? Have your say.

Germany is not only living up to its old reputation as a service wasteland, but is turning back improvements made in the past few years, according to a new study published this week by pollsters YouGov.

Conducted as part of the search for Germany's "most customer-friendly service provider 2013", the study suggests overall consumer trust in service providers is down eight percent on the previous year. Only four percent of those asked said they saw no major problems in the way German companies treat their customers.

More than half (57 percent) of the more than 1,000 consumers surveyed said being dumped in a call centre queue while waiting to speak to an adviser was their most infuriating customer service experience.

The most frequent complaint was incompetent staff, with 44 percent saying unhelpful or idiotic assistants were most likely to make their blood boil.

Contacting companies in the first place was also often a major problem - 36 percent of those asked said companies being unavailable was their biggest service nightmare. And just nine percent said opening times were too short.

Other forms of communication problems came high in the survey results, with 22 percent of participants citing bad website design as their pet hate.

So could Germany really be sliding back into the service dark ages? Are staff that surly, or do you know companies who will go out of their way to meet your every need?

What's your biggest customer service pet hate? Ever have trouble phoning your phone company or accessing your internet company's website?

Or is the worst thing about being a consumer in Germany something different? Do you ever get scowled at in a shop or bullied by your vet?

Have your say here.

The Local/jlb

Chancellor Angela Merkel has for the first time publicly spoken about her Christian faith, which she has always held to be a personal, private matter, despite being leader of the Christian Democratic Union. "I am a member of the evangelical church.

I believe in God and religion is also my constant companion, and has been for the whole of my life," she said on a videoblog when answering questions from a theology student.

"We as Christians should above all not be afraid of standing up for our beliefs," she added.

The structure of the world relating to belief was a, "framework for my life that I consider very important," she said.

The Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper noted on Tuesday that until now Merkel had been very quiet on the subject, despite the much-cited fact that her father was a protestant pastor.

She was more intensely affected by her family home and the Christian faith than she was by her study of physics and scientific thinking, her biographer Volker Resing suggested to the paper.

"And now she has realized that her avowal of Christianity is important - as a signal within the secular society, but also to her party members who have often accused her of not being concerned with the C [in the party's initials CDU]," he said.

Just less than a year before the general election in Germany, is the chancellor fishing for votes from the declining Christian community, despite friction with the Pope and her liberal position on stem cell research, the Frankfurter Rundschau asked.

Such a suggestion has always been too low for Merkel, which is in part why she has always kept religious questions private, the paper said. But it also suggested that her comments were a reaction to the strong media presence of the Muslim community in Germany.

The Local/hc

The deal behind one of the biggest German drug busts of recent times only happened due to pressure from the police - the man who could be jailed would not have got involved without them, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

A 52-year-old man who was desperate to pay off debts and make a new start was effectively entrapped and bullied into organising the shipment of nearly 100 kilos of cocaine into Germany, his lawyer said. 

Berlin's district court has been trying the man, named only as Namik A., since April, and what initially seemed like an open-and-shut case is proving to be much more complicated. 

His lawyers said he would never had become involved in drug smuggling if it had not been for the enthusiastic work of an informant set to make hundreds of thousands of euros from the police if he was able to steer a big deal and bust, the Berliner Zeitung reported on Tuesday. 

Police had started watching Namik A.'s cafe in Charlottenburg, West Berlin, in 2009 after an informant tipped them off that heroin was being sold there. But when they failed to gather any evidence, they sent in an informant already involved in the drugs business to try to catch Namik A. in the act, the paper said.

The informant befriended his target, meeting him around 60 times in 18 months, telling him about a friend who could arrange for drugs to be moved into Germany via Bremerhaven harbour - and then started to talk about smuggling cocaine. 

Namik A.'s lawyer told the court he was keen to pay off his debts and start up a hotel, and so met the man in Bremerhaven - actually an undercover investigator - and then with the informant nagging to get on with it, he went on the hunt for someone who could provide him with cocaine. 

It took him more than a year, but he found someone in Holland who was excited about the idea and said he had contacts to suppliers in South America, theBerliner Zeitung said.

Finally, in August 2011, Namik A. and the undercover investigator still posing as an employee at Bremerhaven harbour opened up a container that had arrived from Venezuela and from out between bunches of bananas they pulled bags of cocaine. 

Namik A. was arrested by police as he loaded the drugs into his car and has been in investigative custody ever since. 

A's lawyer told the court that without the encouragement of the Berlin state criminal police (LKA) and what he called the illegal incitement of the informant, Namik A. would never have got involved and the drugs would never have reached Germany. 

Prosecutor Michael Stork has admitted a certain degree of provocation was involved in the case, the paper said, but nothing that went against the law. 

He said they had caught a defendant who was ready to commit a crime. "The result shows that the tip that we got was right; that the subject was one who could realise such a big deal. Not everyone can organise a hundred kilos of cocaine," he said. 

A verdict is expected to be delivered on Wednesday. 

The Local/hc


Hamburg has become the first German state to strike an historic agreement with Muslim community groups, but the deal has riled some members of the political establishment, who claim it undermines the separation of religion and state.

The agreement was struck between Hamburg city authorities and the council of Islamic communities (Schura), the Turkish-Islamic Union (Ditib), the association of Islamic cultural centres (VIKZ), as well as the city's Alevi community. Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz was set to sign it on Tuesday, the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper reported.

Religious instruction in schools and state recognition of Muslim holidays are among the cornerstones of the deal, which ties into existing agreements with Christian churches and Jewish communities.

In future, Muslim teachers will join Protestant pedagogues at the front of the classroom, the paper said. Moreover, Muslim holidays would be given equal status with other religious holidays, such as the Day of Prayer and Repentance celebrated by Christians.

The agreement, which was launched by the city's former mayor Ole von Beust in 2007, also sees Muslim groups pledge to adhere to the core values set out in Germany's constitution - including religious tolerance and gender equality.

Yet despite broad support for the deal in Hamburg's legislative assembly, not all politicians have endorsed it.

Members of the pro-business Free Democrats have taken a critical view, with the party's deputy in the assembly, Anna von Treuenfels, telling the Hamburger Abendblatt that such agreements "fundamentally contradict the liberal world view that calls for maximum possible separation of religion and churches and the state."

She also warned that "imprecise" formulations in the agreement could open the city up to legal headaches - saying it does not expressly regulate the wearing of headscarves or other religious clothing, such as the burka, during school instruction.

Hamburg's school board dismissed those concerns, however, saying decisions on such issues would be made on a case-by-case basis.

"As soon as clothing has a de-personalising effect, the line has been crossed and wearing it would not be allowed," spokesman Peter Albrecht told Hamburger Abendblatt. "Wearing a burka during class in Hamburg is not permitted."

The Local/arp


German mobile phone bills should shrink significantly from the start of December, as the big four providers were told on Friday to halve the amount they charge customers for mobile calls between networks.

The Federal Network Agency which regulates communications facilities, said it was reducing the amount T-Mobile, Vodafone, E-Plus and Telefonica/O2 could charge for calls between them, from a top price of €3.39 per minute to a maximum of €1.85 per minute. In a year’s time this would be further reduced to €1.79 per minute, a spokesman said.

Jochen Homann, president of the agency, said the spread of smartphones and the accompanying rise in data transmission meant that voice transmission was accounting for a dwindling share of the total cost of mobile phone networks.

Telekom said the decision was difficult to comprehend, and that it would lose €500 million in turnover as a direct result, and this would be bad for future investments.

A Vodafone spokesman said the decision was completely the wrong signal, and would take money from the market which was needed for the expansion of digital infrastructure.

A four-week consultation period now starts, while the European Commission and EU regulatory bodies must also have time to comment.

DPA/DAPD/The Local/hc



A German data protection expert voiced concern on Wednesday after the owner of the O2 mobile phone company said it was preparing to sell information about customers’ locations and movements.

The idea is that information about who spent how long in which shop and when, could be valuable to retailers as marketing data. The information could even include intelligence about how long people spend standing in front of specific shop windows, and where they went afterwards.

The data could also be sold to city authorities so they can see for example, the effect of different opening hours, the firm said.

Yet although the programme, dubbed Smart Steps, which collects the data also removes all personal information apart from gender and age, it has attracted the attention of data protection commissioner for Schleswig-Holstein Thilo Weichert.

He told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper that the idea made him very uneasy.

“Positioning data are highly sensitive exactly because they can be used to determine where someone is,” he told the HR-Info radio station.

“It gives me stomach ache that telecommunication companies are obviously starting to distribute this information.”

O2 owner, Spanish-owned, debt-riddled, Telefonica, said this week it had set up Telefonica Dynamic Insights to sell the data.

There is no plan for how this would work in Germany as “data protection has to be 100 percent ensured,” a Telefonica spokesman told the Frankfurter Rundschau, and said it was taking advice from the German Society for Consumer Research.

Customers starting a new O2 phone contract will be asked to tick a box saying they agree to their details being used. How and whether existing customers would be asked is as of yet unclear.

The Local/jcw

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