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German Protestant Kirchentag draws 100,000 participants

Climate justice and migration are key discussion topics

By Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – This summer, Burkhard Paetzold, a mission co-worker and regional liaison for western and central Europe, joined about 100,000 others from across the globe for one of the world’s most unique gatherings, the German Protestant Kirchentag.

The event is an enormous platform for intensive discussion. The forum, which is held every two years for critical debate about current realities, was established in 1949 as a faith-based open forum for democracy, human rights, ecumenism and raising awareness against every kind of discrimination. The Kirchentag is intended as a grassroots movement of Protestant laypeople.

Kirchentag participants carry a banner with names of drowned refugees through the city of Dortmund during a silent demonstration at the German Protestant Kirchentag. Photo by Burkhard Paetzold.

Participants range from journalists, scientists, and global partners to high-profile representatives from the world of politics, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

This year, much of the discussion during the 2,500 events held in Dortmund, a city in northern Germany, focused on climate justice and migration, which are impacting much of the world. There were also large and small bible studies and a wide range of forums and workshops to discuss church, as well as societal issues.

“There, together with tens of thousands of other attendees, I sang about God’s beautiful creation and discussed our ecological sins and, most importantly, encouraged others and was encouraged in the ongoing work of caring for justice, peace and the integrity of God’s creation,” said Paetzold.

Paetzold said there was deep discussion about how migration is increasingly caused by the effects of climate change. Kirchentag participants made banners that listed the names of thousands of people who have drowned during their migration journey. Paetzold was among those carrying them silently through the city of Dortmund, accompanied only by the beat of a single drum. The group hung the banners from one of the tallest steeples in Dortmund. “It was a powerful experience,” he said. He also participated in a human chain prayer for peace entitled, “Open the borders for humans and close the borders for arms.”

“Europe is divided over the issue of migration and doesn’t have a strategy,” Paetzold said. “At the Kirchentag, there was opportunity to hear the voices of refugees and of others who witness the suffering of refugees. We commemorated the thousands who died in the Mediterranean and protested against criminalizing the helpers. The former Italian interior minister didn’t even allow rescue boats to enter Italian harbors.” One of the alternative strategies, a Humanitarian Corridor for the most vulnerable practiced by his denomination in Italy, has been presented by Waldensian pastor Paolo Naso.

Paetzold said the populist neo-nationalist political party Alternative for Germany sees the issues very differently than his fellow church members.

The banner is posted on one of the highest steeples in Dortmund. Photo by Burkhard Paetzold.

“I was shocked to see them [Alternative for Germany] doubling their share of the vote in the recent elections [to 23% now]. In my very secular state of Brandenburg this party, led by a former Neo-Nazi, sees my denomination, the Protestant Church in Germany, as part of a left wing and ecological conspiracy. For the members of this neo-nationalist party, climate justice and support for refugees are misleading ideologies.

“They say the church has lost God and only follows the current societal mainstream. However, in truth, they themselves are actually seeking to replace God with the idol of nationalism. That’s something that’s been tried before in German history with terrible results,” he said.

Paetzold said he has been thinking a lot about German playwright Bertolt Brecht and his poem “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake” (An die Nachgeborenen, 1939).

Truly, I live in dark times!

An artless word is foolish. A smooth forehead

Points to insensitivity. He who laughs

Has not yet received

The terrible news.

What times are these, in which

A conversation about trees is almost a crime

For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!

Brecht talked in the dark time of the Nazi regime in Germany about migration and the dawn of a big war and the Holocaust.

But the Kirchentag is one sign of hope. A number of initiatives and proposals have come out of the event. For instance, in 1961, it started the dialogue between Jews and Christians in Germany. In the 1970s, new forms of worship, e.g., Liturgical Nights, Celebratory Communion Services and Evening Prayers, together with modern church hymns and songs, led visitors to discover new expressions of faith. And the discussions about peace and environmentalism that shaped Germany in the 1980s had their beginnings largely at the Kirchentag.

The event is held every two years in June in a different German City. In 2021, it will be an ecumenical event, together with the Roman Catholic Church, held in Frankfurt. An English summary of the Dortmund gathering is available at

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