Populism and the fight for the soul of German churches

Populism and the fight for the soul of German churches
From Al Jazeera - September 5, 2017

Berlin, Germany - On a brisk Wednesday evening in early March, a group of people walk towards a small building attached to the Immanuelkirche, an Evangelical church in eastern Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood.

Propped on the wall beside the door is a chalkboard. Scrawled across it and flanked by a pair of fuchsia hearts is a greeting: "Welcome to Meet n' Eat. Come in!"

Inside, children chase each other around. From the cafeteria-style benches comes laughter and the clanking of cutlery against plates.

Dozens of people - Germans, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and emigres from across Europe - meet here each Wednesday for Meet n' Eat, a project that brings them together to cook and eat with the aim of fostering a sense of community between newly arrived asylum seekers and other residents of the neighbourhood.

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"We thought it's very important that people - refugees and Germans - just meet, for political reasons and just for the neighbourhood," says Juliane Wolf, one of the project's founders.

Administered by Wolf and her fellow volunteers, Meet n' Eat was made possible when the church decided to lend them the space more than a year and a half ago.

Jens Hanke, a 34-year-old member of the church's council, says that contributing a space to Meet n' Eat and other projects, such as the establishment of an interfaith preschool, are part of the Christian community's efforts to prevent the rise of the anti-refugee sentiment that has taken root in some parts of German society.

Hanke stands on a second-floor gallery that overlooks rows of pews. Behind him, the vast brass tubes of a pipe organ climb the church's stone wall.

"The middle of society does not have answers to all the questions, so it's important that the church creates platforms for a dialogue toward a better understanding between citizens, immigrants and refugees," he explains.

"We especially invite people who have no relation to refugees and who have questions [to participate in such dialogue]," he continues, adding that Meet n' Eat has been so successful that its weekly participation of around 60 to 80 people is "more people than the church has on some Sundays".

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Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers have made it to the country since 2015, sparking a sharp rise in far-right populism that has sent shivers through German society. And for people like Hanke, the struggle for solidarity with refugees and migrants is part of the churches' - both Catholic and Evangelical - more than seven-decade struggle for atonement over their complicity in the crimes of the Nazi regime (1933-1945).

Historical responsibilities

Some 56 percent of Germany's population of 82 million identify as Christian. They are split almost evenly between Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism, according to a 2015 studyconducted by the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD).

Silke Radosh-Hinder, a 46-year-old pastor, wears thin-rimmed rectangular glasses and a heavy, black coat that nearly touches the floor when she takes a seat on the edge of a pew. At the far end of the church hall is a painting of angels perched at the feet of Jesus, who is draped in a pearl-coloured robe and gazing reverently towards the heavens.

Radosh-Hinder, who is also head of a 22-congregation alliance of churches in Berlin-Brandenburg, says that Christians have a historical and moral responsibility to fight against far-right sentiment. "The advantage of faith communities and the church is our mission: That every human was created in the image of God. Everybody is equal and has equal rights, so we stand up for diversity."

Gesticulating, and pointing the occasional accusatory finger, she decries far-right groups like Alternative for Germany (AfD), an anti-refugee political party expected to enter the German Bundestag later this year.

For Radosh-Hinder, the AfD, which claims to fight for "traditional" Christian values, does not believe "that people are equal, [and is] denying the truest values of our faith and Biblical scriptures".

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But for decades, German churches, like many across Europe, have grappled with their complicity in the genocide inflicted on European Jews during the second world war.

During the Holocaust (1933-1945), more than six million Jews were systematically exterminated, and the Nazi regime carried out the mass killing of millions of ethnic and political minorities, among them Roma, Poles, Slavs, communists and anarchists.

With anti-Semitism deeply ingrained throughout Europe, and Germany growing increasingly polarised due to a depressed economy and rising violence between nationalists and communists, most German Christians accepted Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

Historians may debate the extent of the two churches' complicity, but the complicity itself is rarely questioned.

The Nazi Party appealed to Christians with nationalism and open anti-Semitism. Article 24 of the party's platform, published in 1920, described "positive Christianity" as a force against "the Jewish-materialistic spirit" at home and abroad. It claimed to respect the freedom of all religious groups that "do not endanger" the state or the "Germanic race".

IN PICTURES: Refugees and Germans come together for 'Meet n' Eat'

And within both the Catholic and Protestant churches, many prominent officials and thinkers pledged their support for the Nazi regime. Dissent was rarer and often confined to individuals and small groups who spoke and acted against Nazism.

Jutta Weduwen, director of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP), a German organisation established to challenge the legacy of Nazism, says that "the churches - not just the society as a whole - did not resist enough against Hitler and Nazism".

ARSP was established in 1959 by the council of the Evangelical Church of Germany and Lothar Kreyssig, a judge who, during the Third Reich, had been a member of the Confessing Church, a movement within Protestantism that opposed the Nazi regime's efforts to consolidate all Protestant churches into a single body with allegiance to the government.

Weduwen explains that the group's founding was not just inspired by a hope to foster dialogue between different segments of society but also for historical reconciliation: "It was to admit that Hitler was also supported by the churches."

The rise of far right 'alternatives'

The AfD has earned a reputation as the country's most influential and aggressive anti-refugee force, making it the topic of much debate within Christian communities.

Some wonder how to reconcile Christian values with, for instance, former AfD leader Frauke Petry's call for border guards to open fire on refugees attempting to enter the country.

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