East Germany: liberalization, but with limits. Government reins in political activists linked with Protestant church

The East German Evangelical (Protestant) Church is emerging as a provisional winner after a massive crackdown by the state last week on the environmental, pacifist, and human rights activities that have been flourishing under its wing. A midnight raid on a unique environmental library run by East Berlin's Zion Church, numerous arrests and house searches, amounted to the biggest blow against the church for many years and were reminiscent of the harsh oppression in East Germany during the 1950's.

Church authorities were told that those arrested were suspected of ``assembling for the pursuance of anti-constitutional activities'' - in other words, subversion.

Yet after a few days of strong representations by the church and continuous candlelight vigils by Christians, all those arrested were released. Charges have not been withdrawn, however, and could be pursued at a later date.

In West Germany, where government and parties protested forcefully, the police action was seen as a severe warning to the church not to overstep its very limited freedom of action.

Some sections of the East German leadership are believed to resent the considerable influence of the church, which is the only large organization not controlled by the state. They reportedly fear the church may acquire the same kind of power and independence as the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.

Ironically, East Germany has been relaxing the ban on its people visiting the West and seeking better relations with West Germany, which led to the visit here by its leader Erich Honecker last September. But at home it is refusing to yield to strong pressure from below to follow Mr. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. Mr Honecker maintains that since East Germany is economically successful, it does not need the reforms being attempted in the Soviet Union.

When the name ``Gorbachev'' appears on East Berlin walls it is immediately obliterated by police. This more recent crackdown on political activists is seen as a further indication of official anxiety over political expression.

The crackdown began with a raid on Tuesday night on the vicarage of the Zion Church, whose cellars house the only library where East Germans can read books and documents from many countries on environmental problems. For the East German regime, whose priority is industrial production and economic growth, these problems do not exist.

Western political observers in East Berlin noted that the raid took place shortly after the conclusion of the superpower arms control agreement in Geneva. They suggested that the East Germans had held back until then to avoid compromising the agreement.

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