'Candles and prayers' against the Berlin Wall

28th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

In the months leading up to the fall of the Wall and during the 11 months thereafter leading up to German reunification, the Protestant Church played a key role in pushing for democratic pluralism.

Leipzig -- East Germany's secret police had plans to crush every single threat to the communist regime "but it didn't reckon on candles and prayers."

The saying, by the head of the secret police in Leipzig is fictional and taken from a novel about the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. But given how often it comes up in speeches and historical accounts it might as well be fact.

The revolution "which went off peacefully started in the church," according to Christian Fuehrer, 66, who retired last year after 28 years as pastor of Leipzig's Protestant Nikolai Church.

A leading figure in the "Monday demonstrations" which helped bring down the communist regime, Fuehrer was among the first to open his church to the "peace prayer meetings" which later snowballed into mass rallies.

He first held "peace prayer meetings" in 1982 to protest the arms race. Then only half a dozen turned up. By 1988, he had invited small groups advocating political reform to hold public discussions at the church, whose first stones were laid in the 12th century.

On September 25, 1989, 7,000 turned up for a "no violence" vigil as the regime threatened to clamp down on growing protests.

By October 9, 70,000 converged on the square outside the church for an open air rally at which demonstrators first took up the chant: "We are the people ," in a direct rebuke to leaders of the "people's republic."

The protest triggered a chain reaction which ended with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, and the subsequent fall of the regime.

"For me, the church was obviously political, it deals with mankind. Jesus never hid away, he reached out to man," Fuehrer told AFP.

"Look to the Bible (...) God frees the Israelites from their Babylonian exile (...) The church 'welcomes those who are persecuted' ," he added.

Outside the church today, as was the case 20 years ago, a sign proclaims: "the church is open to all."

"But political doesn't mean belonging to a political party ," says Fuehrer who never quit his job of pastor and still wears his trademark jeans, jacket and trousers.

For Rainer Eppelmann, a former pastor of the East Berlin's Samaritan church, who later was elected to parliament and who now heads a foundation researching East Germany's dictatorship -- "Prayer wasn't enough, you had to get involved in politics."

The reason for the success of the church meetings was that in East Germany every get-together had to be approved by the authorities, except for church services, he said.

Of course, the Stasi secret police spied on what went on.

But Protestant churches, to which most East German Christians belonged, offered a haven for public discussions as Protestant pastors, unlike their Catholic brethren, did not need approval from church leaders on how to run their parishes.

"One speaks of a protestant revolution. It's a little far-fetched but...," says Eppelmann with a smile.

Berlin's Catholic cardinal Georg Sterzinsky doesn't disagree.

In an interview with the Catholic KNA news agency, he recently acknowledged that his church "didn't show enough determination" in backing the reform movement.

For Fuehrer, "a head-on collision with those in power was unavoidable. Dictatorship wants 100 percent of man, so logically it can't tolerate God."

In the months leading up to the fall of the Wall and during the 11 months thereafter leading up to German reunification, the Protestant Church played a key role in pushing for democratic pluralism, says Eppelmann.

He himself was a founder member of Democratic Awakening, a movement which later merged with then-chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat party (CDU). It was he who introduced Kohl to a young woman just starting out on her political career -- Angela Merkel, today's German chancellor.

Eppelmann was later one of eight pastors appointed minister or deputy minister in the short-lived reformed East German government.

Since reunification, Fuehrer has spent his time looking after the unemployed and leading other protests, against nuclear power and genetically modified crops.

"The rosy future promised by Kohl hasn't come about, so there's been plenty to do," he says.

His church congregation has shrunk. "But as a church, you don't look for reward," he says.


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