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East Germany Table of Contents

East Germany

Religion and Religious Organizations

Official statistics on the religious affiliation of the population have not been available since the 1960s. Most East Germans, however, are Protestant. In the mid-1980s, the number of Protestants was estimated to be 7.7 million, or just under half the population. About 7 percent, or 1.2 million people, were Roman Catholics. Other religions accounted for less than 1 percent of the population. According to the Constitution, freedom of religion and worship is the right of every citizen. In reality the regime discourages participation in religious activities, and in the mid-1980s young Christians were often denied access to the best jobs and educational opportunities.

Most Protestants in the country are affiliated with the Lutheran churches. In the mid-1980s, there were eight territorial Lutheran churches; three were united in the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in the German Democratic Republic (Vereinigte Evangelisch--Lutherische Kirche in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik-VELK) and five in the Evangelical Church of the Union (Evangelische Kirche der Union--EKU). Until 1969 the Lutheran churches in East Germany were loosely federated with those in West Germany. The VELK and the EKU, however, split with their West German counterparts in 1968 and the following year established their own Federation of Evangelical Churches in the German Democratic Republic (Bund der Evangelischen Kirchen in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik--BEK). The East German regime had been pressing for a separation of East German and West German churches for some time as part of its program of developing an East German consciousness and had made the maintenance of relations with West German churches very difficult.

Traditionally the Lutheran churches have retained a great deal of autonomy and administrative independence from one another. After the Reformation, the churches were organized on a territorial basis and were marked by differences in theology and ecclesiastical administration. These characteristics have continued into the present. Each of the territorial churches elects its own bishop and has its own synod. Elections and administrative matters are wholly independent from state control. In 1984 the eight territorial churches comprised nearly 7,000 parishes, which were served by approximately 4,000 pastors. There were fifty church-run hospitals, eighty-nine institutions for the physically handicapped, and many similar institutions. In the early 1980s, the largest of the Lutheran churches was the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony (a member of the EKU). This church had approximately 1,200 parishes, 1,000 pastors, and a reported membership of 2.3 million. In the late 1970s, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Thuringia, a member of the VELK, had 1,587 parishes, 750 pastors, and a membership of about 1 million.

The recognition of a common set of problems that needed solutions culminated in a movement toward the unification of the Lutheran churches. Since its inception in 1969, the BEK has provided a federal structure for discussing problems and setting general guidelines, but it has exercised no real control over the member churches and has had little impact on their policy decisions. Moreover the creation of the BEK resulted in organizational redundancy; there were, in effect, three federations or unions: the VELK, the EKU, and the BEK. Each had separate offices, governing boards, and synods. In 1979 the churches decided to merge into one integrated union by 1981. Such a union would exercise greater control on matters of common interest and present a united front in dealing with the government. Several obstacles, however, combined to forestall unification. First, the churches involved followed different teachings, and no resolution had been effected on the emphasis to be given to various interpretations of the faith. Second, the degree of linkage to churches in West Germany and West Berlin remained open. Both the VELK and the EKU had separated from their sister churches in the West, but the EKU had maintained structural similarities and closer ties with the West. Finally, there was general disagreement about whether a united front was the best approach to dealing with the government.

The Protestant churches are financed through offerings and a voluntary income tax on membership. In the mid-1980s, the churches also owned about 202,400 hectares of land, which the government had not expropriated, and operated 50 agricultural enterprises. A substantial proportion of church financing--about 40 percent--was contributed by churches in West Germany and was used primarily for the renovation of old buildings or the construction of new churches. The government offered support for charitable institutions such as hospitals, homes for the aged, and day-care centers. These institutions provided a welcome supplement to the network of state institutions.

In the mid-1980s, the Roman Catholic Church numbered 1.2 million; most of the church membership was located in the south. Many Catholics had originally come from Eastern Europe as part of the population expelled in the postwar period. The church was divided into seven administrative districts that comprised about 830 parishes, which were administered by 14,000 priests. By East European standards, the East German regime has treated the Roman Catholic Church relatively well. The regime has neither subjected the church to extreme repression nor co-opted it. Unlike the Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church has maintained its structural ties to the West because most of the church's administrative districts were part of larger dioceses that extended into West Germany and Poland. In the mid-1980s, the church operated 34 hospitals, 118 nursing homes and homes for the aged, 14 homes for the mentally handicapped, 30 children's homes, and 137 parish social service offices.

In the mid-1980s, less than 1 percent of the population professed a faith other than that of the two mainstream religions. There were about 150,000 members of other Protestant denominations, or "free churches." In addition there was a small Jewish community of about 600 and a small community of Orthodox Christians.

Relations between church and state have vacillated over the years. In general the state does not tolerate organizations outside of those officially sanctioned by the SED. All organizations within the socialist structure of society are designed to work together in developing a new socialist person and in restructuring society. The regime, moreover, is committed to an atheistic philosophy that views organized religion as an "opium of the masses" and, consequently, a tool of capitalist societies.

During the 1950s, the state implemented a series of measures aimed at diminishing the influence of the church. The state gradually assumed control of many of the functions traditionally under the purview of the church. Church youth groups were prohibited, and substitute youth groups under the supervision of the SED were formed, e.g., the JP and the FDJ. Religious instruction was forbidden in the schools and was replaced by the teaching of "socialist morality." Secular and socialist rituals were initiated to rival religious rituals and sacraments. A socialist name-giving ceremony replaced the traditional christening of infants, and a socialist marriage ceremony and funeral service were given official sanction.

The most significant of the new rituals, however, was the Jugendweihe (youth dedication). The Jugendweihe is an old ritual first performed in Germany in the mid-1800s. It was reintroduced by communist officials in 1954 as the official ceremony marking the entry of the youth into adulthood. Normally the Jugendweihe takes place near a child's fourteenth birthday. It is a rite of passage that corresponds to the Christian confirmation or the Jewish bar mitzvah. The child receives political ideological instruction before his or her formal initiation, which includes a vow of loyalty to the socialist state. The churches unsuccessfully resisted the Jugendweihe, at first threatening to deny confirmation to youths who had participated in the socialist ceremony. The church, however, was fighting a rearguard action in this instance. By the late 1970s, over 95 percent of all eligible East German youths had participated in the Jugendweihe. Participation was a virtual necessity for any young person who wished to secure a higher education or a good job.

Despite the restrictive measures adopted by the regime in the 1950s, however, the churches were not the object of brutal repression. Church leaders had fought Nazi fascism during the war, and many had been imprisoned along with communist leaders. A certain amount of mutual respect, therefore, had developed between the two groups. Although some clergy and local lay officials were incarcerated when the communists came to power, no top church officials were jailed, and the regime later released those who had been imprisoned.

In the 1960s, Ulbricht made overtures toward rapprochement with the Lutheran Church. The humanistic aspects of Christianity and its commitment to peace were seen as compatible with socialist philosophy. By easing restrictions, the regime hoped to enlist the support of the churches in developing a collective consciousness. In addition, certain church activities, in particular the operation of charitable institutions, were seen as socially useful and deserving of support. The main bone of contention throughout this period was the continuation of organizational unity between the churches in East Germany and West Germany.

In the 1970s, the Lutheran churches adopted a policy of "critical solidarity" with the regime. In essence this policy translated into accommodation on many issues, but at the same time the churches reserved for themselves the right to speak out on issues that were of vital concern. (The Roman Catholic Church is less vocal than the Lutheran Church.) The government has not always accepted the churches' view of critical solidarity. Rather, it has attempted to draw the Lutheran Church into closer collaboration while at the same time refraining from muzzling church leaders. Relations with the state relaxed considerably after a March 1978 meeting between Honecker and BEK leaders wherein the state made several concessions to the churches. The role of the church as an independent entity was affirmed; building permits were granted for the construction of churches in new towns; promises were made to eliminate discrimination against young Christians; and media time was allotted for religious broadcasts.

In the mid-1980s, the peace issue became a wedge between the church and the regime. Because of clerical and lay pressure, the Lutheran Church provided an organizational and spiritual impetus for the independent peace movement in East Germany. Inspired by the Biblical injunction to "beat swords into plowshares," in 1982 the Conference of Governing Bodies of the Evangelical Churches in the GDR advocated disarmament. The church also sought a "social service for peace" instead of military service for conscientious objectors.

In the 1980s, the Lutheran Church began to broaden its criticisms of the East German regime to encompass other issues as well. Church spokesmen attempted to link the peace issue with the attainment of justice and regime recognition of human rights. The Lutheran Church began to raise the issue of environmental protection, and in 1986 the church used the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union to condemn the development of nuclear power in East Germany. These efforts led to a resurgence of interest in organized religion. In the 1980s, popular demand for Bibles soared and far exceeded the output of 44,000 copies a year. Since the early 1980s, young people, especially, have been attending church meetings and concerts with increasing regularity.

Data as of July 1987

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