HULSBERG, NETHERLANDS -- As soon as things got serious between Wolfgang Lob and Yael Wilf, Lob wrote his employers a letter, informing them that he wanted to marry.
He got a quick answer. The moment Lob wed, the letter said, he would be fired.
Lob is a minister in the Evangelical Church, Germany's largest. The church has a rule that prohibits its pastors from marrying non-Christians. Wilf is Jewish.
Lob was stunned. He knew about the church rule, but assumed it was a relic, an outdated bit of doctrine that had surely been rendered moot by the church's 1980 decree admitting complicity in the terror of the Third Reich, offering a hand of friendship to Judaism and promising to halt efforts to convert Jews.
Lob was wrong. The Evangelical (Lutheran) Church takes its marriage rule quite seriously and has proven so in several recent cases. This summer, a minister in Heidelberg, Klaus Mueller, was fired for marrying a Jewish woman.
And in Hannover, Irmela Orland completed her theological studies only to be summoned to a meeting with church authorities who wanted to know whether she and her husband, who is Jewish, planned to have a Christmas tree in their living room, whether they kept a kosher kitchen, and whether her husband would answer the telephone on Saturdays.
Orland was soon called to a second meeting, at which church officials asked whether her husband would agree to be baptized. Nachum Orland, a political science professor, had no interest in converting; his wife has been banned from leading a parish.
The first question church leaders asked Lob was, "Do you have an alternative career?" The second was, "Could your wife convert?"
Lob is angry and confused. He calls the church's position a blot on the progress it has made since the days of Nazi rule, when ministers not only failed to save Jews but helped oppress them by firing pastors with Jewish relatives and pastors who had converted from Judaism.
Wilf, an artist with whom Lob has had a daughter, Shira, calls their experience "Kafkaesque." Because of the threatened firing, the couple have not married, but live together -- a violation of church rules about which the church has said nothing. Wilf, who is Israeli, does not have a German residency permit, so they cannot share an apartment in Germany. They live just over the Dutch border, a 15-minute drive from Lob's job in Aachen.
The Evangelical Church argues that its rule was originally intended to prevent a repetition of the abuses of the Nazi period, when the church sacked 35 ministers whose wives were of Jewish origin. Several of those pastors committed suicide.
By forbidding ministers to marry non-Protestants, the church could make certain that no pastor would ever be forced out of a job because he had married outside the church, said Pastor Ulrich Fritsche, whose parish is in Leverkusen, near Cologne. "At the time," he said, "the Jewish community, very understandably, was not at all interested in contact with the Christian church, so the issue never came up."
Although Fritsche defends the intent of the rule, he added that it may no longer be justified in an increasingly ecumenical era. "I expect that in the course of time we will find a way to put the responsibility on the individual church," he said.
So can pastors such as Lob expect to be allowed to marry whomever they wish? "Not soon," he said. "It will take years."
In the meantime, Fritsche said, Lob may not lead a parish and has been forced to take a church teaching job instead.
Eventually, Fritsche said, each parish should be permitted to make its own decision about a pastor's wedding plans. "There will be part of the parish who will find it strange if the pastor is not married to a Protestant," Fritsche said. "But the great majority of our churches would tolerate it and even see it as a chance to improve relations with Jews." The rule apparently has already been eased in the case of pastors marrying Roman Catholics.
(The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has no rule governing whom its ministers may marry, said Ed Bersagel, executive director of the church's conference of bishops in Chicago. He said the church has ministers who are married to Catholics, Mormons and members of other faiths.)
Fritsche himself delayed taking a post in the Evangelical Church in the 1960s because of a rule -- since dropped -- requiring ministers to present their intended spouse to a church official.
The church's position leaves Lob with dim prospects. His teaching post ends in a few years, and then he fears he will be on his own.
The pastor says he never considered leaving the Evangelical Church. "The church is the people, not the institution," he said. And the people, for the most part, have supported him.
In Rotterdam, where Lob led a congregation of Germans living in the Netherlands, "the parish said it was an honor that Yael was there," Lob said. "We have a common history, so much in common. Jesus was a Jew. Jews and Christians held services together for the first century of Christianity."
Despite a church rule that says the pastor "and his house play a distinguished role in the life of the community," Lob said that "parishes accept now that they choose a pastor and not his family."
The 33-year-old pastor described the Catch-22 that has backed him into this corner of the Netherlands. "They say, 'Theologically you are right, but Herr Lob, we have a law.' This is a strong German tradition, the idea that nothing can be done even if one is right. The law is a power in itself."
"Such discriminatory rules are a sign of fear of being involved with strangers," said Wilf, who is not an observant Jew but has no desire to leave her religion. "It just surprises me a little, because Christianity has nothing to fear from Judaism. There are almost no Jews in Germany."
Lob interrupted: "Yes, but as in Poland, there is antisemitism without Jews. The effect of the church's rule now is the same as in the Third Reich, when pastors who were related to Jews couldn't be in positions in which they had public contact. They would be hidden away, just like they're trying to do to me."
"Our life is so insecure, so vague because of this," Wilf said. "I've felt from the beginning that Wolfgang's place is in the church. They should wish themselves such people."