German churches feeling financial pressure
Both major denominations brought down to earth by falling congregations and crumbling buildings
As their financial difficulties grow, Germany's
mainstream religions face the painful prospect of selling their
churches or converting them for other uses.
Some 35,000 Protestant and Catholic church spires rise above cities,
towns and villages, but while Germany remains deeply rooted in
Christianity, church attendance has sagged dramatically.
It's not simply that fewer people are going to religious services -
that has been evident for years - but more and more are leaving the
church to avoid paying church tax.
Since the early 19th century, Catholic and Protestant churches in
Germany have enjoyed the constitutional right to levy taxes - a
privilege that once helped them become relatively wealthy.
But now, with tax revenues tumbling, churches are hard pressed to
finance their not inconsiderable number of schools, kindergartens and
social programmes as well as missionary work in Africa, Asia and Latin
A deepening financial crisis threatens Germany's two most powerful
religious denominations, with studies suggesting that up to 30 per
cent of their churches may have to be sold for commercial purposes.
Whereas in 1990 the two churches boasted 28 million members, today the
figure is less than 22 million, with the Catholic Church registering a
loss of more than two million worshippers, and the Protestant Church
double that number.
Aachen, one of Germany's bigger dioceses, struggles to make ends meet.
A third of its staff has been axed in downsizing plans aimed at saving
60 million euros (93 million dollars).
The Catholic and Protestant churches, with around 1.3 million people
working for them, are the nation's biggest non-state employers, but
like some German companies crippled by soaring overheads they are
having to let staff go to save money.
At the Elias Church in Berlin's eastern Prenzlauer Berg district, the
sound of hymns has been replaced by the shouts of children at play in
its cavernous sanctuary where a labyrinth has been constructed with
tunnels and platforms instead of pews.
The church, with its red-brick arches and towering spires, today
serves as a children's museum.
In the western city of Bielefeld, the 1897-built Martini Church was
converted three years ago into the "GlueckundSeligkeit" (Luck and
Happiness) restaurant by Achim Fiolka, a local businessman.
An unprecedented event, it was the first time a big-sized German
church had been reinvented as a place for wining and dining.
"Where the devout once offered praise to God, today connoisseurs of
fine food and drink indulge their passion on 620 metres of floor
space," notes Matthias Pankau, the Leipzig-based bureau chief of IDEA,
a Protestant wire service and news magazine.
In Milow, a village in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, a
former Protestant chapel today serves as a branch of the local Savings
Bank, some two millennia after the Bible says Jesus threw
moneychangers out of the temple.
It's not easy for a parish to relinquish a much-loved church,
especially when the result means it will be used for commercial
purposes. But such is the cold wind of reality today that church
officials are only too happy to find a suitable buyer - it's
preferable to seeing churches demolished.
"It's an emergency situation, one that doesn't bring us enormous
profits, but enables the church to get rid of a financial burden,"
says Johann Hinrich Claussen, one of Hamburg's Protestant Church
Up for sale presently is the Nazi-era Martin Luther Memorial Church in
Marienfelde, a suburb of Berlin. Consecrated in 1933, the year Hitler
came to power, it was once ablaze with swastikas and idealized
carvings of Aryan figures, including a muscle-bound Christ.
Three years ago it was ordered closed when its 50-metre-high tower -
damaged during wartime bombing raids - was found to be unstable and
parishioners failed to raise 3.5 million euros needed for repairs.
The local pastor, Hans-Martin Brehm, would like to see the church
preserved as a museum or documentation centre warning of the evils of
fascism and dictatorship. But so far no offers have been forthcoming.
Engelbert Luetke Baldrup, an official at the Ministry for Transport,
Construction and Urban Affairs, claims the first goal in dealing with
disused churches is to prevent them from being torn down.
"No matter whether in cities or in the countryside, churches are often
the most interesting edifices in the region and people identify with them far more than with other buildings," he says.