Christian Fuehrer, the Leipzig pastor who rallied East Germans to resist the injustice of the former communist system in a series of peaceful protests before reunification in 1990, has died. He was 71.
Fuehrer, who had suffered from a serious lung disease, died Monday after an emergency admission to University Hospital Leipzig, according to broadcaster MDR in the state of Saxony.
Starting in the early 1980s, Fuehrer organized "peace prayers" every Monday in Leipzig's Church of St. Nicholas, which became a focal point for East Germans protesting the regime of Erich Honecker. The nonviolent demonstrations that ensued in October 1989 led to Honecker's removal as leader and the appointment of Egon Krenz as his successor. The German Democratic Republic had its first free elections in March of the next year, paving the way for reunification of East and West Germany.
"Christian Fuehrer was a bearer of hope to many people, both in his profession as a pastor and as one of the defining figures of the peace prayers in the Church of St. Nicholas as well as the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig that led to the peaceful revolution in East Germany," German President Joachim Gauck wrote in a letter to Fuehrer's son, Sebastian.
The Monday prayers at the Lutheran church culminated in a standoff between the resistance movement and Honecker's communist party, known in German as the SED, on Oct. 9, 1989. About 70,000 people protested in the streets after the Ministry for State Security arranged for Honecker loyalists to occupy more than 500 seats in the church during the prayer session.
"I always wanted also to move in the earthly realm," Fuehrer said in a 2008 interview with the New York Times. "It is not the throne and the altar, but the street and the altar that belong together."
After reunification, Fuehrer continued to speak out in favor of what he perceived as injustice. He opposed cuts to social security benefits imposed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government, advocated a minimum wage and demonstrated against the Iraq war.
Recognizable in his jeans and denim jacket, Fuehrer gave antiwar sermons that attracted thousands of people in March 2003.
Fuehrer was born in Leipzig on March 5, 1943. He learned Greek and Latin and studied theology at Karl Marx University, now the University of Leipzig. He also took a job in a car factory, rode motorcycles as a telegram delivery boy and worked as a waiter on a train.
From 1968 until 1980, he was a pastor in Lastau and Colditz before being appointed head of the congregation at the Church of St. Nicholas in 1980. He began the peace prayers two years later. Fuehrer retired in 2008.
"We experienced it together," he said on the church's website. "Thousands in the churches, hundreds of thousands on the street around the city center. Not one broken shop window. The unbelievable experience of the power of nonviolence."
Fuehrer and his wife, Monika, a pharmacist, had four children. His wife died in 2012.