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Tens of thousands visit Protestant congress in Berlin

A biennial conference of the Protestant Church in Germany has so far attracted some 136,000 people, organizers say. But religion is sometimes being upstaged by politics at the event.

More than 130,000 people have so far visited the Protestant congress, or Kirchentag, in the German capital, organizers said on Friday, with 140,000 visitors in all expected to have attended the event by the time it ends on Sunday.

This time round, the congress, which takes place every two years, is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It is seeing events with several prominent figures from both the religious and political world, among them former US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US philanthropist Melinda Gates and UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.

Deutschland 36. Evangelischer Kirchentag in Berlin (Reuters/F. Bensch)

Obama has many fans in Germany

Sources from Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), which will be facing off with Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU bloc at elections in September, said the party leadership was not pleased that Merkel had received the chance on Thursday to take to the stage in front of some 70,000 people with Obama, who is still popular with many Germans.

Read: Obama in Berlin for landmark church assembly  

However, the SPD's top candidate, Martin Schulz, also received his chance to speak in a full Berlin Cathedral on Friday, taking the opportunity to call for a "fair election campaign." In a generous gesture, he also defended his rival Merkel against Obama's successor, US President Donald Trump, saying that it was not right for a president to behave like an autocratic ruler and treat the chancellor in "such a humiliating manner."

Focus on refugees

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, who is also a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats, also appeared at a number of events. Among other things, de Maiziere defended his policy of not allowing family members to be reunited with relatives who have received asylum in Germany, saying that would mean too many people coming to the country.

The entire event was interrupted at 12 noon (1000 UTC) for a minute's silence to remember the more than 10,000 people who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe, often fleeing conflict or poverty in their home countries.

At a commemorative event at Berlin's main railway station, political scientist Gesine Schwan criticized the German government's refugee policy, saying that it was irresponsible to accept the death of thousands in the Mediterranean.

Read: What you need to know about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea

Egypt attack

The Kirchentag was also overshadowed by Friday's attack in Egypt, in which at least 28 Coptic Christians were killed and 22 more wounded.

Berlin Kirchentag 2017 Dr. Thomas de Maiziere und Sheikh Ahmad Masaa al-Tayyeb (picture-alliance/Citypress24)

De Maiziere and el-Tayyib spoke on tolerance

De Maiziere interrupted a discussion with the Grand Imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque, Ahmed el-Tayyib, entitled "Tolerance and Living Together Peaceful" at the announcement.

Both expressed their shock at the news, with el-Tayyib saying: "No Egyptian sympathizes with such acts, neither Christians nor Muslims."

Protests and populists

Among the other political figures to appear at the Kirchentag on Friday was Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who had to cope with several protesters criticizing what they saw as reprehensible connections between the German army, or Bundeswehr, and the German Protestant Church.

Deutschland Bundestag Ursula von der Leyen (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

Von der Leyen had to cope with protests

The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) also put in its first appearance at the event, with the federal spokeswoman of the group "Christians in the AfD," Anette Schultner, trying to explain the negative attitude of her party to refugees.

"Even in the Bible, it would have been unimaginable for a foreigner to go into a country and immediately demand all rights," Schultner said.

Her remarks were countered by the Protestant bishop of Berlin, Markus Dröge, who referred to the biblical tradition of "taking in strangers and accepting them as they are."

New president

This year's Kirchentag also saw the announcement of the event's next president, with journalist Hans Leyendecker, 69, an editor at the prestigious German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, succeeding German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the position.

Hans Leyendecker bei Maybrit Illner 25.04.2013 (imago)

Leyendecker is a noted investigative journalist

He will preside over the next Kirchentag, which is to take place in the western city of Dortmund in 2019.

Steinmeier is no longer available to continue in the position following his election as the German head of state, said Christina Aus der Au, who is standing in for him.

tj/jm (KNA, dpa, epd)

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