Church near Berlin Wall hosts event to mark its role in epochal change

By Stephen Brown
November 10, 2009

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, officials have returned to a church in what was East Berlin, where protests of candlelit prayers helped bring down communism in East Germany.

Germany's political and church leaders marked the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall on 9 November with an ecumenical service at the Protestant church in eastern Berlin, named after the garden where the Bible records Jesus spending his last hours.

"Today we look back at the fall of the wall 20 years ago," said Roman Catholic Archbishop Robert Zollitsch in his sermon at the Gethsemane church, only a few hundred metres from where the fortified concrete wall divided the city's eastern and western sectors from 1961 to 1989.

"We still feel today the gratitude and joyful amazement for this happening. What even only shortly before had seemed unthinkable became a reality," said Zollitsch, the chairperson of the German (Catholic) Bishops' Conference.

The service was attended by German President Horst Köhler, while Chancellor Angela Merkel marked the start of a day of events in the German capital to celebrate the opening of the wall, which was followed in 1990 by the unification of East and West Germany.

A 1.5 kilometre row of 1000 oversized, painted dominoes set up near the Brandenburg Gate along the line where the border ran, would topple later in the day to symbolise the ripple of events in eastern Europe that led to the collapse of communism there.

Still, Archbishop Zollitsch and Berlin's Protestant bishop, Wolfgang Huber, noted in their addresses at the Gethsemane church how joy at the opening of the wall in 1989 had been followed by soul searching about the effects of reunification between East and West Germany.

"Undoubtedly what came together belonged together," said Zollitsch. "But what came together did not immediately fit together: a western country that seemed to be doing quite well on its own and an eastern country with a run-down economy."

Huber recalled the "tears of joy, the radiant faces, the liberation" of 1989. Twenty years later, however, "especially in eastern Germany, we will not resign ourselves to widespread unemployment - for this is not the freedom for which people struggled".

The Protestant bishop also noted how in the weeks leading up to the opening of the Berlin Wall, the Gethsemane church had been a focus for protesters calling for peaceful changes and reforms in East Germany. "People had read the signs of the times; they showed civil courage and resisted intimidation, and did so without violence, but with candles and prayers," said Huber.

"The Gethsemane church bears witness not only to scenes of joyful upheaval. Here, as in the garden of Gethsemane, there were periods of despair," said Huber. More than 500 people had been arrested during the protests at the Gethsemane church.

Behind the altar at the service stood a large display with the motto, "Watch and Pray", words which the Bible recounts that Jesus told his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, and which were sung during the church protests in 1989.

"Each prayer removed a stone from the wall," said Zollitsch, referring to the, "gratitude that [German] unity took place without violence or the shedding of blood." Still, he noted how people had been killed or imprisoned attempting to flee East Germany across the wall.

On the Gethsemane altar also stood a Menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that symbolises Judaism, as a sign that 9 November marks the date in 1938 when the Nazis attacked Jewish Germans, their property and their synagogues.

"The memory of 9 November 1989, and not less the memory of the heinous events of the State's pogrom night of 9 November 1938, teach us the unmistakable lesson that walls - whether real walls or in people's hearts and minds - do not resolve problems," said Archbishop Zollitsch.

[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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