Germany's biggest Protestant gathering has opened in Dresden with calls to learn from the experiences of non-violence in the former Communist-ruled East that led to the peaceful revolution of 1989 and the end of the Berlin Wall.
"One of the reasons the Wall collapsed was that Christians in the German Democratic Republic had repeatedly called for freedom, for justice, peace and the integrity of creation," said Dr Margot Kässmann, the former Lutheran Bishop of Hanover, in an opening Bible study at the German Protestant Kirchentag, or church convention.
"They brought the call of 'no violence' from the churches of Leipzig and Dresden and East Berlin to the streets of those cities and were a decisive reason why a non-violent revolution was possible," Kässmann told thousands of participants in a hall packed to overflowing.
Organisers say more than 120,000 participants are attending the 1-5 June 2011 gathering, which draws political as well as church and religious leaders for debates, worship, music and cultural events.
The Kirchentag was founded in 1949 as a lay Protestant movement to rebuild a sense of civic and religious responsibility after the experience of Nazism and the Second World War.
The Dresden gathering is the second national Protestant Kirchentag in eastern Germany since German unification in 1990.
Much of the city was destroyed and thousands of people lost their lives in February 1945 when Dresden was bombed by allied forces. In the 1980s, the commemoration of the bombing became a focal point for independent peace activists in the former East Germany.
In 1988 and 1989, the city hosted the Ecumenical Assembly of Christians and Churches for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. This was the first large-scale meeting of East Germany's Protestant, Roman Catholic and Free churches. The assembly, with its demands for changes in East Germany, has been seen as a key event leading to the peaceful revolution.
Speaking at the opening of the Kirchentag, German President Christian Wulff paid tribute to the "open churches" in East Germany that offered a place for protest and opposition.
"These Christians did not see religion as a private affair but as a public matter," said Wulff. "Trust in God created political courage. This liberated human beings and gave them space to breathe. This toppled a dictatorship."
Under communism in East Germany, Wulff noted, Christians had been a minority, and they are still a minority in the region, where most people say they have no religious affiliation.
"But when we look back we realise that the issue is not whether one is in the majority, but whether one has convictions," said Wulff, a Roman Catholic elected president in 2010. "It's an issue of supporting each other, helping each other and giving each other courage."
© Stephen Brown is writing from Dresden, Germany. An Ekklesia associate, he is a Geneva-based journalist and the author of From Disaffection to Dissent: The Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation as a precursor of the peaceful revolution in the GDR, published in German in 2010 by the Verlag Otto Lembeck, Frankfurt/Main.