By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 18, 2009
WITTENBERG, Germany -- Martin Luther, a renegade monk, triggered the Reformation here five centuries ago by nailing a long list of grievances to the door of the Castle Church. But as Wittenberg celebrates the founding of Protestantism, it is finding one thing in short supply: Lutherans.
Generations of secularism and communism have exacted a severe toll on church membership in this eastern German city. Today, fewer than one in five people identify themselves as Christian, one of the lowest percentages in the country. Most worshipers who fill the pews in local churches are tourists longing for a glimpse of the holy sites frequented by Luther when he lived here between 1508 and 1546.
"It's a very strange experience for foreign visitors, especially Americans, to come to the city of Luther and discover that east Germany is perhaps the most atheistic region in the world," said Stefan Rhein, director of the Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt.
The presence of organized religion is so limited in Wittenberg that some U.S. Lutheran organizations are trying to fill the void. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America established a ministry here 10 years ago to cater to the thousands of American pilgrims who visit annually. Study abroad programs for American students have proved so popular that the city plans to open a residential college next year for visiting scholars.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second-largest Lutheran body in the United States, has bought a building next to the old Town Church, where Luther used to preach, and plans to turn it into a welcome center for U.S. visitors. The Missouri Synod also plans to start a congregation by reaching out to German atheists, although organizers acknowledge that won't be easy in a city still recovering from 40 years of communist rule.
"In east Germany, you actually have to go up to people and tell them who Jesus was," said Wilhelm Torgerson, a German Lutheran pastor who serves as the Missouri Synod's representative in Wittenberg. "They say, 'Oh yes, Christ. Didn't he have something to do with Luther?' "
"We would like to proclaim the Gospel to unbelievers, and there are certainly a lot of them here," Torgerson added. "Obviously, there is enough work for all of us without stepping on anyone's toes."
Wittenbergers have welcomed the growing American presence for the most part, but there have been some bruised feelings.
Some Missouri Synod leaders have declared that their congregation would be the only true Lutheran church in Wittenberg -- an assertion that irritated members of the Evangelical Church in Germany, the largest Protestant body in the country. The Evangelical Church comprises Lutherans, Calvinists and other denominations.
"It was strange for them to come here and say, 'We are the first real Lutherans,' " said Siegfried T. Kasparick, the Evangelical Church's bishop for Wittenberg. "We've had a Lutheran congregation here since Luther."
In Germany, about 30 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Church. An additional31 percent count themselves as Roman Catholic.
In Wittenberg, however, the number of churchgoers is among the lowest in the country. About 15 percent are members of the Evangelical Church, and 3 percent are Catholic. The city also has a small number of Baptists.
National leaders of the Evangelical Church acknowledged that they have taken Wittenberg's theological and historical significance for granted in the past. Many west Germans still regard the city, about 60 miles southwest of Berlin, as an east German backwater.
But such attitudes have gradually changed, in large part because of the influx of foreign pilgrims in Wittenberg since the fall of communism two decades ago.
Kasparick, the Wittenberg bishop, said the strong interest from international Lutheran groups has prompted German Protestants to take more pride in their heritage. "They make us stronger," he said.Commemorations
Wittenberg began a decade-long celebration of the Reformation in September, on the 500th anniversary of Luther's arrival in the medieval city as a priest and teacher at the local university.
A succession of festivals, lectures and other events will run until Oct. 31, 2017, the anniversary of when Luther publicly challenged the authority of the church in Rome by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church.
The theses were a list of complaints about church doctrine. Luther reserved particular scorn for the sale of indulgences, or the practice of promising salvation in exchange for money. Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther for heresy three years later, but the German's theological rebellion spread across Europe and divided Christianity.
One public-television series a few years ago ranked Luther as the second-most admired figure in German history, behind post-World War II Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. But many Germans are unfamiliar with Luther's theological achievements. He is primarily known as a father of the modern German language, the first person to translate the Bible from Latin into German.
For decades, authorities in communist East Germany tried to suppress Luther's teachings. They promoted the story of an even more radical Reformation-era priest, Thomas Muentzer, who helped spark the peasant rebellion of 1524. Muentzer, a rival of Luther, was seen as more ideologically compatible with the Communist Party.
The East German state later softened its opposition to Luther and sponsored international events to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his birth in 1983. But Wittenberg still became better known for its manufacturing base than its religious heritage.
"People didn't associate Wittenberg as Luther's city, but rather as a city of industry and chemical production," said Eckhard Naumann, mayor of Wittenberg. After the fall of communism, he added, "the city of Wittenberg had to ask itself a lot of questions: 'What are we? Are we the city of Luther? What does that mean in this new world?' "
Today, Wittenberg strongly embraces the old Augustinian monk as central to its identity. Christians may be a minority in Wittenberg, but everybody seems to agree that "Luther Tourism," as they call it, is good for business.
Luther's image is omnipresent in the well-preserved 700-year-old town center, even adorning restaurant menus. Every June, the city holds a festival to commemorate Luther's scandalous 1525 wedding to a runaway nun, Katharina von Bora. The Castle Church attracts 200,000 visitors a year. It is scheduled to undergo a $45 million renovation by 2015.
German church leaders, however, also see the Luther renaissance as an opportunity to bolster dwindling membership across the country. In October, the Evangelical Church in Germany dispatched a senior pastor, Stephan Dorgerloh, to work in Wittenberg full time to help coordinate and promote the religious aspects of the 500th anniversary commemorations.
In the past, Dorgerloh said, international Protestant leaders would visit Evangelical Church officials in Berlin and ask to visit Wittenberg. "The German church would say, 'Why do you want to go there?' " he recalled.
Since then, he said, "there's been a rediscovery of Wittenberg by the German national church. Church leaders have rediscovered that this is the heart of the Reformation."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.