Christian and in the AfD? Church leaders say maybe, with caveats | News | DW | 19.09.2018
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Christian and in the AfD? Church leaders say maybe, with caveats

Professed Christians within Germany's far-right AfD disqualify themselves if they utter racist views, according to Hanover's Protestant bishop. Still, dialogue, although risky, must be kept open, Ralf Meister says.

Deutschland Hannover AfD Parteitag (picture-alliance/dpa/H. C. Dittrich)

December 2017, AfD annual conference in Hanover

Bishop Ralf Meister, one of Germany's 20 leading Protestant clerics, told the daily Osnabrücker Zeitung on Wednesday that his church must condemn radicalized AfD policy, but could not assume that all Christians in AfD ranks were overtly racist or anti-Semitic.

Meister, bishop to 2.3 million Protestants in Hanover and outlying regions since 2011, said he was "very cautious" about breaking off dialogue with professed Christian AfD supporters, and encouraged his region's congregations to speak openly about political leanings and ties.

EKD-Landesbischof Ralf Meister in Hannover (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Steffen)

Line crossed with racist, anti-Semitic views, says Meister

He added that such individuals must, however, realize that "anyone who is an AfD member promotes policies that lead to radical right-wing shifts in values." 

Read more: Germans upbeat about immigration - study

"What doesn't work is to be Christian while uttering anti-Semitic, inhumane, exclusionary, racist [opinions], or insulting other people publicly and on social media," Meister said. "With them we don't talk"

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) holds 92 opposition seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of German parliament, as well as occupying the opposition benches in 14 of Germany's 16 states. The party has denounced Chancellor Angela Merkel's migration policy.

Legitimization questioned

One prominent critic of Merkel's decision to temporarily open Germany's borders to a large group of refugees in 2015 is retired Catholic priest and social science professor Wolfgang Ockenfels, who belongs to the AfD's newly formed Desiderius-Erasmus political training foundation and who also edits a periodical called Die Neue Ordnung ["The New Order"].

In his August editorial, Ockenfels questions why "the mass immigration from Africa to Germany is being legitimated by human dignity" before reciting a fellow author's criticism of the "historically singular experiment of transforming a mono-ethnic and mono-cultural democracy into a multi-ethnic society." 

Official Catholic aversion to AfD

Alongside Germany's combined EKD Protestant churches with 23 million members, Germany's Catholic bishops and Catholic lay leadership have also taken stands against AfD radicalization.

In Leipzig in 2016, organizers of the large German Katholikentag convention decided against participation by the AfD, which at that time was not represented in the federal Bundestag. 

At this year's convention in Munster in May, the Central Council of Catholics invited all Bundestag parties, including the new entrant AfD, to send their spokespersons on church matters to a podium discussion.

'Red line' crossed

Two weeks ago, Meister and Lower Saxony state premier Stephan Weil headed a protest rally in Hanover against neo-Nazi-mobilized outrages in Chemnitz last month that were sparked by a fatal stabbing.

Meister's remarks on Wednesday followed a similar call by Berlin's Protestant Bishop Markus Dröge, who in June warned against a generalized church exclusion of AfD adherents.

A "red line" was crossed, however, when such individuals acted or spoke in an inhuman manner, Dröge said during a book presentation by publicist Liane Bednarz, a leading researcher into Germany's far-right networks.

Bednarz told guests during the presentation at the opposition Green party's Heinrich Böll Foundation that she saw "great helplessness" among church representatives on how they should deal with populists in their congregations.

Her book Angstprediger [Preachers of Fear] has the sub-title: "How right-wing Christians are undermining society and the churches."

"The ties to the right-wing populist scene are to some extent fluid; the preachers of fear sometimes show open sympathy for [the German anti-Islam movement] PEGIDA, the AfD and the Identitarian Movement, which is under observation by the BfV [Germany's domestic intelligence agency]," Bednarz wrote.

Rhetorical tactics

Princeton University political scientist Professor Jan-Werner Müller, originally from Germany, told a conference on populism and the churches in Darmstadt last week that far-right protagonists sought to redefine every conflict as a cultural battle.

Excluding them fully from public discourse did not work, Müller said, because it reinforced their perception that mainstream parties didn't pay attention to them. However, he said that adopting or reacting to their positions was just as problematic.

"The populists are always faster," he said. "When one of their demands is fulfilled, they present another one."

But there was no alternative to open dispute, Müller concluded: "Democracy is not a consensus convention."

Volker Jung, president of Germany's Protestant Church of Hesse-Nassau, said the worst had been averted after a recent death in Köthen in Saxony-Anhalt because the "church was immediately present and gave the grief and anger a voice that could not be directed at others."

ipj/msh (epd, KNA, dpa)

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