A Pastor With a Political Mission

Rainer Eppelmann played a key role in providing moral force for East Germany's revolution

HE doorbell rings and West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher enters. ``Guten Tag!'' he says, grabbing his host like an old friend. ``We've got a lot to talk about.''

The setting is not some beautiful baroque ministerial office. It is an unpretentious second-floor flat in the working-class Berlin district of Prenzlau Berg. The host is not a high-ranking state official, either. He is a Lutheran pastor, Rainer Eppelmann.

``Mr. Genscher and I see each other often,'' Pastor Eppelmann explains after the foreign minister departs. ``He came to get a briefing on the situation here in East Germany.''

Obviously, Eppelmann is no ordinary pastor. In this country where the democratic opposition was weak and immature, the Protestant churches have stood out as a bastion of strength. They provided the shelter, working space, and moral authority for protest groups to launch the revolution that toppled East Germany's hard-line Communist regime. Thousands of people gathered in churches for peace services, spreading out into the streets in larger and larger numbers until they forced their country's leaders to tear down the Berlin Wall.

In this struggle, Eppelmann played a crucial role. Since entering the ministry 16 years ago, he has opened his simple, red-brick Samaritan Church to nonconformists and independent thinkers, believers and nonbelievers, and pacifists and ecologists, as well as punks and rockers.

Today, as a founder of the Democratic Awakening party, the goateed, balding, 46-year-old religious leader (who looks strikingly like another very different revolutionary leader - Vladimir Lenin) has become a leader of East Germany's budding democratic opposition.

``You always see Eppelmann these days on television,'' reports Irene Runge, a sociology professor at Humboldt University in East Berlin. ``People like him in the church started this revolution by opening doors to dissidents.''

Born to a working-class Berlin family, Eppelmann worked as a bricklayer until he realized ``that this was no lifetime vocation.'' He began to study theology at age 26. Like Latin American priests who embraced liberation theology, he always saw his religious responsibilities as encompassing politics.

``As a Christian you had to get involved, to oppose injustice, and there was a lot of that here,'' he says. ``This made me a political pastor from the beginning.''

In the early 1980s, Eppelmann helped organize the budding peace movement, which opposed the installation of Soviet missiles in East Germany.

The Samaritan Church sponsored regular peace masses. He also became active in the ecology movement, a particularly sensitive issue in this heavily polluted country. Stickers proclaiming ``Greenpower'' are pasted on his apartment door.

Pastor Eppelmann ``was crucial for the opposition,'' recalls Werner Wiemann, a leader of the Democracy Now movement. ``We didn't go to church because we were religious. We went because it was the only place to express ourselves.''

Under former leader Erich Honecker, the hard-line Communist government permitted these activities in order to cultivate a cooperative relationship with the churches. It saw the church as a valuable asset in maintaining a stable society, a partner in fighting social ills such as alcoholism and drug addition. But this tolerance had definite limits.

Uniformed police officers often surrounded the Samaritan Church during services, ostensibly to provide ``protection.'' They checked the ID's of those who wanted to enter. Inside, plainclothes officers posed as participants and tried to sabotage the meetings by asking provocative questions. Pastor Eppelmann's telephone also was bugged.

``Once they arrested several people from the congregation,'' Edeltraut Pohl, the secretary of the Samaritan Church recalls. ``One was expelled from the country.''

Pastor Eppelmann refused to succumb to the pressure. When East Germans began fleeing through Hungary this summer, he and other progressive pastors organized open political meetings. Afterward, believers spilled out into the streets and swelled into a powerful, peaceful demonstration.

``It was amazing in September,'' recalls Christian Fuhrer, pastor of the Nikolai Church in Leipzig, where the biggest demonstrations have taken place. ``All of a sudden, all of the churches opened their door and the numbers of people coming to church doubled.''

With Mr. Honecker and his cronies gone, many observers believe the church will lose its crucial importance. Political parties are opening their own offices outside church premises, and most demonstrations now are organized without any church help. Attendance at services has fallen off, or perhaps more fairly, has returned to normal.

``The church's importance will decline,'' predicts Pastor Fuhrer. ``People now have other places to follow their ideas.''

Pastors like Eppelmann, however, may guard their considerable influence. Many East German opposition leaders are seen either are politically naive artists and intellectuals or young and naive students. Pastor Eppelmann provides a rare mature voice.

``At a time when parties and politicians hardly exist,'' he says, ``I feel an obligation to step into the void.''

For this reason, he has helped found the Democratic Awakening party. Democratic Awakening is not right wing and conservative, but rather its ideology mixes together social democratic and ``green'' sentiments.

Instead of confrontation, Democratic Awakening preaches conciliation. It calls for a coalition including Communists. The Democratic Awakening party no longer can rule alone, Eppelmann says. But neither can the fledging opposition.

Eppelmann opposes a ``premature'' reunification with West Germany. His reasons are both practical and moral: ``It would mean the end of [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and [would] scare our neighbors,'' he says. ``We must find a third way here between socialism and capitalism.''

Events are accelerating, and he doesn't know whether he can control them. ``The next six months are crucial,'' he says. ``Either we get a solid democracy established here or we will be strangled by West Germany.''

In the past, Eppelmann managed to keep up with his pastoral duties despite his political activities. But over the past few months he has become a full-time politician.

``It's no longer really possible for him to be a pastor,'' admits his secretary. ``He's become a speaker for the people.''

It is a role he will not shy away from. He would prefer to retain his religious mission. If asked, however, he says he is ready to become a minister in a freely elected democratic government.

``I'm a divided man,'' he concludes. ``I really love my ministry work. But I cannot turn my back on society.''

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