ON LOCATION: Fr. Chris reports from Berlin
Day 1: Monday, December 2nd
Currently I am at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, waiting to board a plane to New York’s JFK airport, where I will meet up with many others who will travel to Berlin, Germany for the Religious Freedom Conference. I am very grateful to have been asked by the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with the blessings of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, the Exarch of the Patriarchate in this Hemisphere, Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis, the National Commander, and an outstanding committee of incredibly gifted and dedicated organizers under the capable direction of George C. Rokas, Esq., to travel to Berlin with them to cover the Second International Conference on Religious Freedom this week. Supporters of OCN and visitors to our site will remember that we were with the Archons at the first conference a few years ago in Brussels at the EU to cover that event.
I will be sending photos and blog posts to our website to offer you the opportunity to follow and learn from this very important gathering, which brings together the world’s leading thinkers in the areas of religious freedom and human rights. I will also conduct in-depth video interviews with many of the speakers, which will be aired on our site following the end of the conference. This conference will focus on religious freedom issues affecting minorities in Turkey, stressing the concepts of equality, state neutrality, and pluralism as they relate to religious freedom and the status of religious freedom under Turkey’s current and proposed new constitutions.
Day 2: Tuesday, December 3rd
We arrived in Berlin at 7:30 a.m., which means we are a bit jet lagged to say the least. However, the spirit of the group is fantastic and the fellowship truly something to behold. The early arrival gave us some time to tour the city and to understand just why this conference is being held in this historic city that has experienced much hardship and yet great healing.
We began our tour and went to our hotel where three of our Metropolitans from the Archdiocese of America joined us: Metropolitans Iakovos of Chicago, Alexios of Atlanta, and Nicholas of Detroit. In addition, many of the Archons and their families who had traveled earlier to the city joined us.
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.3 million people, Berlin is
Germany’s largest city and is the second most populated city proper and the seventh most populated urban area in the European Union. Located in northeastern Germany on the River Spree, it is the center of the Berlin-Brandenburg Metropolitan Region, which has about 4½ million residents from over 180 nations. Due to its location in the European Plain, Berlin is influenced by a temperate seasonal climate. Around one third of the city’s area is composed of forests, parks, gardens, rivers, and lakes.
We began with a short stop to view the remains of the Berlin Wall, erected during the night of August 13, 1961 by the then-Communist government of East Germany, to prevent its citizens from fleeing from that country. The number of East Germans leaving for the west in search of economic prosperity and political freedom was escalating, which was undermining the government. It was a weekend, and most Berliners slept while the East German government began to close the border.
The East German troops had begun to tear up streets and to install barbed wire entanglement and fences through Berlin. Within the next few months, the first generation of the Berlin Wall was built. In the early morning of that Sunday, most of the first work was done: the border to West Berlin was closed. A second Wall was built in June 1962. The Berlin Wall consisted of concrete, electric fences, vehicle barriers, and a “death strip” patrolled by the border guards. The Berlin Wall divided Berlin in half, splitting up family and friends and became a symbol of totalitarianism around the world. It remained for 28 years.
We saw the former transit point “Check Point Charlie” the symbol of Cold War Berlin, the Kreuzberg District, which was surrounded by the Wall from three sides. Along the former “no man’s land,” from Kreuzberg to Treptow, we saw one of the guard towers which has survived. One of the highlights of the tour was actually seeing the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, a one-mile-long section of the wall near the center of Berlin. Approximately 106 paintings by artists from all over the world cover this memorial for freedom and make it the largest open air gallery in the world.
We then went and toured the Mauer Museum-Haus at Checkpoint Charlie, founded by human rights activist Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt. It is a museum like no other; from its humble beginnings in October 1962 as a two-and-a-half room display about the Berlin Wall, the museum has evolved into a more than 21,000 square foot exhibition space that explores not only the history of the Berlin Wall and the stories of those affected by it, but also looks at the challenges facing us today as we struggle for worldwide recognition of human rights and freedom.
We stopped for a much-needed coffee break and snack at nearby Kauffeehaus Sarah Weiner, a traditional Viennese coffeehouse in the Communication Museum at Leipziger Strabe. We all thought we were finished and that we were going to our hotel to settle in for the conference, which would begin tomorrow, but no, there was so much more to see and learn.
The other highlights of the City included: Brandenberg Gate which is a former city gate, rebuilt in the late 18th century as
a neoclassical triumphal arch, and now one of the most well-known landmarks of Germany; The Victory Column, a monument designed by Heinrich Strack after 1864 to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. By the time it was inaugurated on 2 September 1873, Prussia had also defeated Austria in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), giving the statue a new purpose. Different from the original plans, these later victories in the so-called unification wars inspired the addition of the bronze sculpture of Victoria, designed by Friedrich Drake. Berliners, with their fondness for giving nicknames to buildings, call the statue Goldelse, meaning something like “Golden Lizzy.”
Then it was on to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which is located in the center of the Breitscheidplatz. The original church on the site was built in the 1890s. It was badly damaged in a bombing raid in 1943. The present building, which consists of a church with an attached foyer and a separate belfry with an attached chapel, was built between 1959 and 1963. The damaged spire of the old church has been retained and its ground floor has been made into a memorial hall. Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to name the church in honor of his grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm I. The foundation stone was laid on March 22, 1891, which was Wilhelm I’s birthday.
From there it was on to the very impressive Berlin Cathedral, which is the colloquial name for the Evangelical (i.e. Protestant) Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church in Berlin, Germany. It is the parish church of the Evangelical congregation Gemeinde der Oberpfarr- und Domkirche zu Berlin, a member of the umbrella organization Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia. Its present building is located on Museum Island in the Mitte borough. The Berlin Cathedral has never been a cathedral in the actual sense of that term since it has never been the seat of a bishop. The bishop of the Evangelical Church in Berlin-Brandenburg (under this name 1945–2003) is based in St. Mary’s Church, Berlin, and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. St. Hedwig’s Cathedral serves as seat of Berlin’s Roman Catholic metropolitan bishop.
All in all, it was a very full day with the traveling and sightseeing. As we progress through the week, we will see why this city was chosen as the location for the second religious freedom conference. My thoughts go to battles, wars, bombing, and destruction, and yet a new city has emerged, a bustling metropolis of many people from all different walks of life, respecting each other and allowing all to practice their faith.
May God grant us a sacred and uplifting conference for the purpose of freeing our Ecumenical Patriarchate from her oppression.
Editors note: Thanks to Cloud Tours for providing the extensive details about the locations described in this Blog Post.