German Protestant Church Assembly summit begins without far-right AfD | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.06.2019
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German Protestant Church Assembly summit begins without far-right AfD

This year's German Protestant Church Assembly will highlight the importance of trust in polarized times. Prominent politicians are expected to attend the summit, but the Alternative for Germany party was not invited.

Ralf Greth is a Protestant minister in Dortmund, a city that many abroad will mainly know for its Bundesliga football team, Borussia. This year, Dortmund is hosting the 37th German Protestant Church Assembly, which began Wednesday. "Our congregation is small, but many here are really interested in the summit," Greth told DW. "Everyone's excited." He said members of his congregation were putting up visitors in their own homes and others were helping out as volunteers in communal homes, gyms and schools, where some guests will be sleeping.

More than 100,000 visitors are expected to flock to Dortmund and the wider Ruhr region from Wednesday through Sunday. The German Protestant Church Assembly was launched in 1949 and is held biannually in odd years. The five-day summits tend to attract large numbers of people, making the events far larger than the German Catholic Congresses, which are held every other even year. And they are of greater societal relevance, too. The German Protestant Church Assembly has in the past repeatedly called for political and social change, for instance when attendees of the 1981 Hamburg summit came out in support of the Cold War peace movement. Summits held before the year 2000 urged government to scrap the debt of impoverished countries.

The summits are always highly political. But they are also fun and feature tons of music. And this year's Dortmund summit will be no exception. After all, these summits are renowned for their large church services, accompanied by brass bands. They are also known for public exegeses of Bible verses — at times by celebrities.

This year, visitors will be able to partake in an ecumenical dinner inside a former coal mine and attend a Disney-themed church service. They will also be able to wander along a pilgrimage route and explore Greth's historical church. Ice skating and singing spiritual songs are also options. But, above all, the summit boasts hundreds of discussion events, in which serious issues will be debated.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Armin Laschet (picture-alliance/dpa/G. Kirchner)

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (right) and NRW State Premier Armin Laschet

'A rare thing'

The theme of this year's Protestant extravaganza is "trust." Greth said that was what held society together. It is needed in church, in our families, at work. "But trust has become a rare thing, and that has a strong impact on our lives," Greth said.

Hans Leyendecker

Leyendecker, the assembly's president, said the summit would highlight solidarity

Seventy-year-old Hans Leyendecker, who serves as the summit's president, said: "There are many things that are like acid, slowly eating away at our trust and undermining societal cohesion." That's why, he said, this year's get-together is about highlighting the importance of national and international solidarity.

Greth said the summit would take a stand on the issues of climate change and nationalism. The Protestant Church is already doing its part to protect the environment, he said. But, in light of Germany's increasingly polarized society, he would also like to see the summit take a stand against racism and xenophobia. "We will have to make clear again and again that this is the wrong path," he said. "We need trust so that we can live together in Europe — indeed on this entire planet — instead of isolating ourselves," he added. Otherwise, Greth said, humanity will not survive.

The summit's most important event will see the chairman of the board of the Protestant Church in Germany, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, discuss the challenges of climate change with the prominent Fridays for Future activist Luisa-Marie Neubauer and others.

AfD not invited

A number of high-ranking German politicians are in Dortmund, too. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and three of his predecessors are attending, as are a number of ministers and heads of federal governments. On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will discuss the role of trust in international affairs with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is an economist and the former president of Liberia.

Though so many important people will be in attendance, it comes as little surprise that media outlets have largely focused on and debated why members of the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party have not been invited to the summit. The party line is that AfD members felt ostracized by the church. But Leyendecker, the summit's president, said the party should not be allowed to portray itself as a victim. He added that the assembly never invites politicians to represent their parties — "not even from the Christian Democratic Union or the Social Democratic Party." Instead, he said, calling out the party's Bundestag co-leaders Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, "we invite individuals who have something meaningful to contribute, but Mr. Gauland, Mrs. Weidel and all those people have nothing important to say."

So, instead, the AfD members will have to content themselves with a little booth in central Dortmund. They will officially not be part of the city's five-day Protestant Church Assembly.

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