A GERMAN bishop has criticised the decision taken by the Kirchentag to exclude the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party from all podium discussions during this year’s festival, to be held from 18 to 23 June. The Kirchentag is a biannual Protestant lay festival of faith, culture, and political discussion, which has traditionally taken place since 1949 after Trinity Sunday in different German cities.
In an interview with the radio station Deutschlandfunk on Easter Day, Bishop Ilse Junkermann, of the Evangelical Church in Central Germany, said: “I very much regret this decision. If, in the debate with the AfD, we are concerned about preserving and strengthening democracy, also against the AfD’s populism and its deliberate breaking of taboos, then it is very important that we do so within the means of democracy; and that we do not abandon the power of the word and the power of discourse, but, rather, engage with them in an objective, factual discussion.”
Thuringia Monitor, a study that analyses the attitudes and opinions of citizens in the former East German state of Thuringia, suggests that a high proportion of members of congregations in Bishop Junkermann’s churches, in Thuringia, hold right-wing extremist attitudes.
Last month, another theologian with East German roots, Dr Ellen Ueberschär, who was general-secretary of the Kirchentag from 2006 to 2017, also condemned the decision.
“The surprising AfD ban which was pronounced for this year’s Kirchentag in Dortmund seems to me to be of little help. [The Kirchentag] wants to do the right thing but is sending out the wrong signal,” she said, addressing an audience that commemorated an ecumenical assembly that, in 1989, mobilised dissent in the former East Germany, where the churches played a pivotal part in the peaceful revolution that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and, ultimately, the collapse of Communism.
In the face of globalisation, digital revolution, and ecological crisis, many people felt politically, socially, and ecclesiastically abandoned, she said, and the Church was one of the few institutions that could counter the “mechanisms of powerlessness production”.
ANLI SERFONTEINAnette Schultner, from Christians in the AfD, in a heavily guarded Sophienkirche, in Berlin, in 2017
During the last Kirchentag, in May 2017, the Protestant Bishop of Berlin, Dr Markus Dröge, was criticised for sharing a podium with Anette Schultner, from Christians in the AfD, in a heavily guarded Sophienkirche, in Berlin. Although right-wing and left-wing protesters tried to disrupt the discussion on “Could a Christian be a member of the AfD?”, the speakers were heard.
Afterwards, Dr Dröge told reporters: “I found it clarifying, and the audience could decide for themselves which positions were more credible.”
The facilitators of the 2017 podium discussion, the EKD Institute for Research on Religious and Ideological Issues (EZW), has also criticised the ban. “The Christian Churches have the freedom not to have to respond to exclusion with exclusion. They should not point-blank avoid confrontation with populists,” the head of the Institute, Dr Reinhard Hempelmann, wrote in their monthly magazine.
He pointed out that the decision to exclude the AfD from podium discussions this year was taken in a secret meeting behind closed doors, at the end of 2018.
The AfD is represented by 91 seats in the German Bundestag, making it the strongest opposition party in Parliament. It is especially popular in the federal states that belonged to the former East Germany, as well as in districts of East Berlin, where it commanded up to 40 per cent of the vote in the last elections.