Church-state tensions easing in East Germany

As next year's 500th anniversary of Martin Luther approaches, the East German state is reemphasizing cooperation with the Lutheran Church.

It is not wavering, however, in its refusal to grant the church's wish for exemption from armed military service and compulsory military training in the schools on grounds of conscience.

The latest example of church-state togetherness was East German leader Erich Honecker's playing host to a Lutheran delegation at the end of October and the subsequent reprinting in the party newspaper of remarks made on the occasion by a high-ranking church official.

Honecker, in his capacity as chairman of the state committee planning for Luther's anniversary, praised Luther as an early bourgeois revolutionary, of course - the role Luther has been assigned in East German historiography in recent years after his earlier vilification as an opponent of the peasant revolution his reformation helped start.

Luther's latter-day rehabilitation parallels the East German rehabilitation of various 18th and 19th century Prussian generals in claiming their heritage for the German Democratic Republic.

For the church that bears his name, however, Luther is first and foremost a spiritual and not a social figure. Helmut Zeddies, chairman of the religious committee planning for the Lutheran anniversary, stressed at the joint session of the church and state Luther committees that it would be ''unthinkable to consider Luther without considering the church whose reformation was at the heart of his work.''

In line with this the regional Lutheran church conventions next year will all discuss the words from Luther's catechism: ''Fear, love, and trust God above all things.''

Significantly, the comments by Dr. Zeddies were carried at some length in Neues Deutschland, the party newspaper. Ordinarily, this newspaper ignores the church's religious affairs.

Neues Deutschland also published Honecker's words of praise for the cooperation of the two Luther committees and Honecker's description of this cooperation as ''an important further step of putting into practice the results of my talk with the board of evangelical leaders on March 6, 1978.''

That talk was the signal for a relaxation of various restrictions on Christians in Luther's heartland.

In various areas, such as construction of churches and (to a certain extent) equal study and job opportunity for Christians, that liberalization has been implemented. Church-state strains continue, however, over East Germany's refusal to recognize conscientious objection to bearing arms or to compulsory military training in high schools.

In these areas no substantive change is apparent. At a Lutheran synod in Saxony, held the same weekend as the anniversary meeting, regret was expressed about this lack of movement, according to the evangelical press service. Reprisals against schoolchildren and apprentices who do not participate in military training can include expulsion from their school or loss of their apprenticeship, church officials reportedly said.

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