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Protestant, Jewish Leaders Urge End to Sit-In at German Church Slated to Become Synagogue

Protestant and Jewish leaders on Friday appealed to a group of 15 parishioners to end an eight-week sit-in at a church in western Germany that is slated to be converted into a synagogue.
( [email protected] ) May 21, 2007 12:36 PM EDT

BIELEFELD, Germany (AP) - Protestant and Jewish leaders on Friday appealed to a group of 15 parishioners to end an eight-week sit-in at a church in western Germany that is slated to be converted into a synagogue.

Local church authorities have approved the sale of the Paul Gerhardt Church to the Jewish community in the city of Bielefeld, but the protesters object to the closure of their church.

The head of the Lutheran church of Westphalia, Alfred Buss, urged them to give way.

"In Bielefeld, there is the historical chance of a Lutheran church becoming a synagogue, a Jewish house of God," his church said in statement. "The city faces the challenge either of seizing the chance or living in future with the taint of having squandered this possibility."

Bielefeld Rabbi Henry Brandt said the protesters "are preventing a project that would send an outstanding signal — Jews once again have a place in German society." He noted that the city's original synagogue was destroyed during the Nazis' Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, pogrom in 1938.

The protesters insisted that their sit-in is aimed at preserving their church and not at preventing a synagogue.

"This is a protest against the arbitrary closing of the church at this point in time, because there was a promise that it would stay open as long as possible," said Hermann Geller, one of the protesters.

The sale of the church, agreed between Protestant and Jewish authorities, stemmed from the merger of two neighboring parishes.

Buss ruled out having police clear the building, but called on the occupiers to consider the consequences of their actions.

"I can understand that parishioners fight with determination to preserve their church," he said.

Germany's Jewish community has grown over recent years since the government relaxed immigration laws following reunification in 1990, with tens of thousands of Jewish migrants coming mostly from the former Soviet Union.

Germany's Central Council of Jews estimates that 250,000 Jews now live in the country, with some 110,000 of them registered religious community members.