E. Germany reopens door to W. German church

Lutherans in both East and West Germany hope that the March 17 meeting of East and West German Evangelical (Lutheran) church and state officials will bring about a renewal of close contacts between the Lutheran churches in both parts of divided Germany.

The churches have been split ever since the East German government forced the East German Evangelical church to leave its West german counterpart 11 years ago.

The March 17 meeting with State Secretary for Church Affairs Klaus Gysi was the first between any East German government official and a West German government official and a West German Lutheran bishop since the 1969 division. After the meeting the West German Evangelical chairman, Hannover Bishop Eduard Lohse, told a press conference that he now hopes for a solution to the "complications" in relations between East and West German Lutherans.

East German Lutheran church spokesmen said that the meeting stressed the churches' joint responsibility for forwarding peace, detente, and disarmament in the present world political situation. Bishop Lohse stated that the churches' cooperation has no political goals.

East Berlin Bishop Albrecht Schonherr, the East German participant, characterized the meeting as a "sign of the present growing respect" between church and state in East Germany.

A permanent "dialogue" is now to be conducted between the East and West German Lutheran churhces. The proposal for resuming this dialogue was made last fall, just after the two churches issued a joint "word on peace" on the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. In that statement the churches pledged to strive individually in their differing conditions to fulfill their common mission of communicating the gospel and preserving peace.

This move toward "normalization" of relations between the East and West German Lutheran churches comes just two years after the East German government truce with the East German church. The result of this was an unusual, well-publicized meeting between East German Communist party and state chief Erich Honecker and East German Lutheran leaders. In that 1978 meeting the government pledged in effect to end discrimination against Christians in East German education, employment, and society.

Since then, there have been recurring church-state frictions, as well as one public dispute -- over military training in the schools. But the East German Lutheran Churhc has been able to go ahead with formerly forbidden religious radio and TV programs, with long-blocked church construction and repair, and with broader pastoral rights.

The East German Evangelical church had unsuccessfully resisted its 1969 cutoff from what the East German government termed "the NATO church" in the West. In a statement at the time, the East German church -- despite strong government pressure to change the wording -- referred to "the special community of all of Evangelical Christianity in Germany." The church also spoke of the "co-responsibility" of "all Evangelical churches in the German Democratic Republic [East Germany] and the Federal Republic West Germany" for maintaining this community "in partner-like freedom."

The East German church has maintained this concept of partnership in spiritual affairs in the intervening decade despite the absence of organizational links with the West German church.

Informal personal contacts between Lutherans of East and West resumed after the East-West German "ostpolitik" of the early 1970s. The first resumption of any official links had to wait until 1976, however, when the West German Evangelical chairman was granted a visa to attend the synod of the East German church. The chairman of the East German Union was permitted to attend the West German synod in 1977.

The Evangelical church in Germany was founded in 1948, at the end of the allied occupation. It survived the building of the Berlin wall in 1961.

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