Exhortations for Resistance Again Echo From Leipzig Pulpit

Times Staff Writer

Christian Fuehrer has done this before.

Fourteen years ago, Fuehrer and the church he leads lighted the spark that ignited protests across East Germany by people sick of Communist repression. By the time Fuehrer’s famous “Montagsdemos” -- Monday demonstrations -- were done, the Soviet-backed regime had fallen and with it the Berlin Wall.

Now, 60 but no less fiery, Fuehrer is pitting himself against another government he describes as power-hungry and oppressive, bent on inflicting needless misery on innocent thousands.

Not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Rather, Fuehrer says, George W. Bush’s America.


And so St. Nikolai Church’s Montagsdemos are back in force, outpourings of protest that have pulled thousands of Leipzigers into the streets once again in the most sustained of Germany’s many public displays of opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

“This is a war of aggression, and it’s happening against the worldwide opposition of churches, against the will of the people of the world, [including in] countries that are leading the war,” Fuehrer said. “People are seeing that it’s a new kind of violence, with power being put above the law.”

Since Christmas, Fuehrer’s church has led prayers, vigils and protests for peace at least weekly and sometimes daily. What started as a small, candlelight event with 18 people on Dec. 25 grew exponentially, until tens of thousands of people showed up Thursday after the war began, turning Leipzig’s historic stone streets into a flowing river of humanity, with rainbow flags flying and whistles blowing.

Influential City

When this city speaks, Germany -- and the rest of the world -- have often sat up and listened.

For several centuries, Leipzig’s music and poetry captured national and international attention. Bach served as the cantor of St. Thomas Church from 1723 until his death in 1750. Goethe studied law and set part of “Faust” in the city. Felix Mendelssohn composed here; Richard Wagner was born here.

In the 20th century, the city went from a cultural mecca to a smoking ruin after Allied bombing campaigns during World War II. Under East Germany’s Communist government, Leipzig deteriorated further into an industrial wasteland of drab apartment blocks and a rundown city center.

In 1982, at the soaring 12th century St. Nikolai Lutheran Church, where he had been installed as pastor just two years earlier, Fuehrer decided to start Monday night gatherings to pray for peace.


For seven years, the vigils were mostly small affairs. But anger over Leipzig’s terrible economic conditions and corrupt politics began to swell the ranks of those who met weekly at Fuehrer’s church. Within a few astonishing months, the vigils morphed into mass protests against the government involving hundreds of thousands of people.

A year later, East Germany no longer existed.

Leipzig was hailed as the birthplace of the protest movement and St. Nikolai Church as its cradle.

“We experienced, particularly under Father Fuehrer, that when people get involved, miracles happen,” said Christian Drechsler, an engineer who remembers those heady times. “And we realized that we can use peaceful means to destabilize regimes prepared to commit violence.”


After the ‘80s, the peace prayers and protests made periodic comebacks -- during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the civil wars in the Balkans and the conflict in Chechnya -- but none has drawn so many participants as the current incarnation of the Montagsdemo.

“I needed personally to come here. As long as we’re here, people will see that we’re against the war,” said Drechsler, 44. “For me, it’s a matter of faith.”

At the center of all the activity is Fuehrer, a dynamo whose full name, which literally means “Christian leader,” seems almost too apt.

The pastor is constantly on the go, darting from his study to talk to parishioners or to do a stand-up television interview outside St. Nikolai’s imposing exterior.


Leaders of the Monday prayer meeting want to go over the order of service with him. Another man unfurls a banner for him to inspect, decorated with patches in the shape of basketballs and signed by the Leipzig basketball team. Big letters spell out the slogan: “Balls, not bombs.”

Like a youthful rebel, but one with closely cropped gray hair, Fuehrer runs around in sneakers, jeans and a denim shirt, toting a black briefcase plastered with stickers demanding an end to war and violence.

His opposition to military intervention in Iraq hit the headlines in December when he refused an invitation from the U.S. consul general in Leipzig to attend a Christmas party. Fuehrer’s response went beyond a polite “no.”

“I sent a more extensive fax, saying: ‘Your country is urgently preparing for war, and I can’t sit by the Christmas tree with you. The Christmas gospel says, “Glory to God on high, and peace on Earth,” ’ " Fuehrer said.


Pews Are Filled

The same bluntness of speech characterizes his exhortations from the pulpit.

“Right now we’re experiencing a return not just to the Middle Ages but to the time before Jesus, to the Stone Age of human thought and action,” he told his listeners during the peace prayers two days ago.

The painted white pews were full, despite major scaffolding inside the church, which is undergoing extensive renovation. Latecomers stood at the back, while protesters started assembling outside.


More than 5,000, and perhaps as many as 10,000, eventually showed up for the noisy march from the church to the steps of Leipzig’s famous opera house, where local dignitaries spoke and members of a band sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in German.

Fuehrer says he is most pained by the use of religious rhetoric by Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to justify the war on Iraq, which he calls a misreading of Jesus’ message of peace and love.

Although he is a committed Christian, Fuehrer is proud of the fact that the Montagsdemos have drawn people of all kinds -- of different political persuasions, of different walks of life, of all faiths or none.

“Sometimes people come up to me at the demonstrations and say: ‘You know, I’m an atheist, but I think it’s great what you’re doing. We’re really glad that it’s possible to do that at the Nikolai Church,’ ” Fuehrer said.