Churches remember 'holy disorder' and the fall of the Berlin Wall

Churches remember 'holy disorder' and the fall of the Berlin Wall

By Ecumenical News International
9 Oct 2009

A prayer service for peace in an historic Lutheran church in the East German city of Leipzig exactly 20 years ago triggered the chain of events that precisely a month later led to the opening of the Berlin Wall.

Churches in Germany will remember that event today, reports Anli Serfontein.

As people gathered after work on the afternoon of 9 October 1989 in the Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas' Church) and three other inner-city churches in Leipzig to pray for peace and democracy, the signs of potential violence were uppermost in most people's minds.

Two days earlier, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was in East Berlin for the 40th anniversary celebrations of the East German state, pro-democracy demonstrations there had been put down with force.

Many East Germans had fled the country in the summer of 1989. Those who wanted to stay and force reforms at home started organizing peaceful demonstrations and prayer meetings.

The Nikolaikirche had been holding peace prayers each Monday since 1982, a time of tension in Europe over the deployment of nuclear weapons. The prayers became a focal point for East German opposition activists.

After the 9 October services in Leipzig, an estimated 70,000 people poured into the city centre, connecting in a full circle on a ring road around the downtown area.

"There were too many of us that night to arrest, the prisons were already full," Jochen Lässig, one of the founder members of the reformist group Neues Forum in Leipzig told Ecumenical News International.

Before the prayer service took place, however, ominous warnings had appeared in Leipzig's communist-run media, suggesting that armed force would be used to suppress demonstrators. Local doctors and nurses reported that hospitals were building up blood reserves and being put on alert to deal with bullet wounds.

Behind the scenes, diplomatic efforts were running throughout the day to try and ensure that things developed in a peaceful fashion.

The conductor of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur, was so worried a bloodbath would ensue that he called a meeting at his house. This brought together three local communist party officials, a cabaret star and a theologian, Peter Zimmerman.

Together they mustered a call for a non-violent demonstration that evening, appealing to all sides to shun force and to stay peaceful. Masur went on State-run radio at 6pm with a call that was also read out in all the churches where the peace prayers were taking place.

Roland Wötzel, one of the communist party officials at the meeting with Masur, told ENI how he had a copy of the call to non-violence delivered by personal courier to Politburo member Egon Krenz in East Berlin. Leaders of the communist party in Leipzig waited in the city hall for a response. But the top party leadership in Berlin was still deliberating as the protesters took to the streets.

The Lutheran bishop of Saxony, Johannes Hempel, who was also a president of the World Council of Churches, rushed to all four churches to plead for dialogue.

"The prayers for peace ended with the bishop's blessing and the urgent call for non-violence," said Pastor Christian Führer of the Nikolaikirche.

"More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands - an unforgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you can not carry stones or clubs at the same time."

Troops, military brigade groups and the police became engaged in conversations, and then withdrew, said Führer. "It was an evening in the spirit of our Lord Jesus for there were no winners and no losers. Nobody triumphed over the other, nobody lost face. There was just a tremendous feeling of relief."

In front of the Leipzig headquarters of the Stasi - the East German secret police - demonstrators gathered, laid candles on the steps and sang songs. What few knew at the time was that inside the darkened building, most Stasi members were present and armed with live ammunition. They had orders to defend a strategic building. They had sandbags under the windows, still displayed today as it is now a museum.

Irmtraut Hollitzer, once curator of the museum, told ENI, "One stone through the window would have been enough to set off a bloodbath."

The peaceful outcome of the Leipzig demonstration marked a turning point in the democracy protests, which gathered force throughout East Germany. This was followed by the opening of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 and free elections in March 1990.

In October of 2009, 80 parishes in 18 cities in the former East Germany, people are recalling the events of 1989 ago by again holding services of prayers for peace.

"Twenty years ago people found a place in the churches to formulate their discontent. And from there they went onto the streets and the squares. That way the protests became a peaceful revolution of candles and prayers," Bishop Ilse Junkermann of the Protestant Church in Central Germany told ENI.

The prayer services are also to address current problems in Germany, she noted.

Junkermann said: "With our Monday prayers this October we would like to remind people how faith can bring about change, but we also would like to again stir holy disorder and give hope against resignation."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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