Populism and the fight for the soul of German churches

Many German churches are standing with refugees as atonement for past complicity in the crimes of the Nazi regime.

    In 2016, there was an average of 10 attacks a day targeting refugees and their housing in Germany [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
    In 2016, there was an average of 10 attacks a day targeting refugees and their housing in Germany [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    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!"

    Meet 'n Eat was started to bring together newly arrived asylum seekers and locals [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    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 Henke, 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.

    Henke 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.

    Jens Henke, 34, is a member of the church's council [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera] 

    "The middle of society doesn't 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".

    READ MORE: The time a mob awaited refugees in the German town of Clausnitz

    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 Henke, 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 study conducted 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.

    Silke Radosh-Hinder is head of a 22-congregation alliance of churches in Berlin-Brandenburg [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    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, doesn't believe "that people are equal, [and is] denying the truest values of our faith and Biblical scriptures".

    READ MORE: Meet the Syrian refugee giving back to Germany

    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.

    Immanuelkirsche, an Evangelical church in east Berlin, was built in the 19th century [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera] 

    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 - didn't resist enough against Hitler and Nazism".

    Jutta Weduwen says that 'Hitler was also supported by the churches' [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    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.

    "No policeman wants to fire on a refugee, and I don't want that either," she told the Mannheimer Morgen regional paper in January 2015, but "police must stop refugees [from] entering German soil" nonetheless.

    READ MORE: Remembering one of the most disturbing resurgences of right-wing violence in Germany since Nazism

    In February, the AfD's popularity in the polls peaked at around 15 percent. Although it has since declined, the party is still expected to surpass the five-percent threshold to enter the national parliament for the first time in elections later this year.

    Anette Schultner is the national spokesperson for Christians in the far-right Alternative for Germany party [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    In 2013, Anette Schultner decided to leave the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Germany, the ruling party headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for reasons related to her faith.

    Sitting in a meeting room in Berlin, she recalls later joining the far-right populists and becoming the national spokesperson for the party's group Christians in the AfD. "I recognised that it was a conservative political force in Germany's future," she says, citing her fierce opposition to same-sex marriage, reproductive rights and challenges to traditional gender roles.

    "Conservatism is an important part of democracy, and the AfD is the party that can move these ideas forward."

    READ MORE: How the murder of a four-year-old boy exposed the dangers awaiting refugees in Germany

    Since the eruption of the refugee crisis in mid-2015, Schultner, who claims Muslims aim to establish Islamic law in Europe, has become a vocal proponent of the AfD's anti-migration proposals.

    "It's highly questionable whether they're really refugees from war-torn countries," she says, evoking an oft-employed far-right claim that most asylum seekers are simply hoping to find work. She claims they will "effectively rob" Germany of its national identity.

    In May, Schultner participated in a debate in Berlin about the AfD and Christianity. Although a petition opposing her appearance gained more than 1,600 signatures, she showed up nonetheless.

    Her calls for mass deportations and harsh restrictions on abortions elicited jeers from the audience. Near the end of the event, a 16-year-old boy ascended the pulpit and unfurled a t-shirt that read: "No human is illegal".

    Schultner's particular brands of Islamophobia and xenophobia are not unique in the AfD, which has called for a ban on mosque minarets, the full face veil and the Muslim call to prayer.

    The mass influx of refugees has led to a rise in anti-Muslim violence and anti-migration protests [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera] 

    In April 2016, leading party member Alexander Gauland proclaimed that Germany must remain "a Christian country" and "Islam is a foreign entity". He was recently put forward as a candidate in the upcoming elections.

    At the party's conference a month earlier, delegates drafted a manifesto that stated, "Islam is not part of Germany".

    Critics and political opponents say the AfD is partly to blame for inciting the wave of anti-refugee violence that has gripped Germany. Last year, the interior ministry documented 3,533 attacks on refugees and their accommodations - nearly 10 a day.

    'One or two miracles' 

    Despite a surge in far-right sentiment since the refugee crisis started, overall public opinion has changed little throughout those two years, with nearly 37 percent of Germans believing that the country can overcome the challenges of mass migration.

    And while it is unclear if there exists a correlation between religiosity and support for the AfD, many of Germany's religious leaders have taken a firm stance against the party.

    READ MORE: Confronting the colonial roots of racism in Germany

    In February 2016, Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr shone a spotlight on the AfD when he promised to switch off the lights of Erfurt Cathedral during weekly AfD rallies led by Bjorn Hoecke, former party leader in the German state of Thuringia.

    Speaking to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper at the time, Neymeyr argued that because the AfD's principles were incompatible with Christianity, he planned to deny them an illuminated and "magnificent backdrop" for their rallies.

    A year later, Hoecke sparked a fierce battle within the party when he called for a "180-degree turn" and urged Germans to abandon feelings of "national guilt" over the Holocaust.

    Henning Flad argues that people of faith have a 'duty to speak out against far-right populism' [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera] 

    Henning Flad is project director of the Federal Working Group on the Church and Right-wing Extremism, an umbrella group that includes several Christian organisations (among them ARSP).

    The group was founded in 2010, on the eve of a massive neo-Nazi protest in the eastern city of Dresden, to provide a peaceful alternative to far-right populism.

    It operates through outreach and counselling and by organising educational seminars and distributing literature that provides guidance for identifying far-right sentiment among congregations and stresses theological grounds for combating racism, homophobia and Islamophobia.

    READ MORE: Dresden's welcome cafes for refugees

    "The best way to prevent this is by not waiting until people already have really extremist ideas, but rather to talk to people about their insecurities and fears before that can happen," Flad says.

    "We have a duty to speak out against the far right," he adds, "and the main people who profit from polarisation … are on the far right. The more heated [the public discussion] gets, the more those with simple, black-and-white answers benefit."

    Back in the Immanuelkirsche church, Pastor Radosh-Hinder says she hopes for "one or two miracles" to stem the tide of racism and anti-refugee violence.

    "If you decide to vote for the far-right populists, you take the whole package," she warns. "And this package is very violent. You cannot just choose one topic … That is a very frightening package for society and certainly for democracy."

    Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_ 

    The AfD, an anti-migration party on the far right, is expected to enter the federal parliament later this year [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News



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