Thursday, October 9, 2014

How a prayer meeting helped bring down the Berlin Wall

Disillusioned with the Berlin Wall, the physical fault line of the ongoing Cold War and the repressive East German regime, Pastor Christian Führer began organising Prayers for Peace every Monday evening, beginning in 1982.

On many occasions fewer than a dozen people attended the prayer meetings. The East German government strongly discouraged its citizens from becoming involved in religious activities, but the meetings continued each Monday without fail.

In 1985 Pastor Führer put an 'open to all' sign outside the church. Such a gesture was loaded with symbolism as the church provided the only space in East Germany where people could talk about things that could not be discussed in public.

Meetings were open to everyone. Young people, Christians and atheists all sought refuge there. Attendances soared as word of the peace prayers spread.

Momentum began to build in earnest during the summer of 1989...

"On 8 May 1989, the authorities barricaded the streets leading to the church, hoping to put people off, but it had the opposite effect, and our congregation grew. There were beatings and arrests of demonstrators at protest rallies in Leipzig, Berlin and Dresden," [Pastor Führer] said.

By this time the prayer meetings had led to a series of peaceful political protests in Leipzig and other cities which became known as the Monday Demonstrations. ...

Things came to a head on 7 October 1989, the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic.

"There were hundreds of arrests made among the crowds in front of the Nikolai Church. Erich Honecker [the Communist leader of East Germany] had declared that the church should be closed. The police used brute force against the demonstrators and lots of people were beaten," Pastor Führer recalled.

An article appeared in a local newspaper announcing that the counter-revolution would be put down on Monday 9 October "with whatever means necessary". ...

"The church was visited by doctors who told us that hospital rooms had been made available for patients with bullet wounds. So we were absolutely terrified of what might happen," Pastor Führer said.

Up to 8,000 crowded into St Nicholas Church, including members of the feared Stasi (secret police) who had been sent to occupy it.

Other Leipzig churches opened to accommodate additional protesters. About 70,000 people had now gathered in the city.

After an hour-long service at St Nicholas, Pastor Führer led worshippers outside.

The nearby Augustusplatz was filled with demonstrators clutching lit candles. Slowly, the crowd began walking around the city, past the Stasi headquarters, chanting "we are the people" and "no violence", and accompanied by thousands of helmeted riot police ready to intervene.

The tension was palpable.

But at the decisive moment the police stood aside and let the protesters march by.

Pastor Führer said: "They didn't attack. They had nothing to attack for. East German officials would later say they were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer." ...

This would prove to be a seismic moment. The fact they had been met with no violence meant the protest movement began to lose its fear. The dam had burst.

Footage of the march was widely broadcast, which inspired Monday Demonstrations throughout East Germany in the following weeks.

About 120,000 people took to the streets the following Monday. Erich Honecker resigned two days later. The dissidents became increasingly emboldened, with around 300,000 taking part in the protests on 23 October.

Exactly a month after the events of 9 October the Berlin Wall came down amid scenes of jubilation witnessed around the world.
--Peter Crutchley, BBC, on the power of prayer. HT: JM