Trendy Berlin district gets religion

Berlin, Germany - Christian Zeiske believes in miracles.

The amiable Berlin pastor had just a dwindling flock of elderly churchgoers when he began working at the historic Gethsemane Church in the trendy eastern district of Prenzlauer Berg eight years ago.

But his Protestant congregation has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years thanks to demographic shifts and a liturgy tailor-made for a fast changing neighbourhood.

"We are seeing major growth both in membership and attendance -- that is unusual for Germany and Berlin," he told AFP.

With the sanctuary of the striking 19th-century neo-Gothic brick church decked out for Christmas and the pews filled to the last row, the 54-year-old Zeiske brims with confidence about the state of Christianity in his corner of once "godless" east Berlin.

"We don't pull rabbits out of hats or perform gags but we do manage with music and sermons to create a special atmosphere here every Sunday and give people something relevant to their lives," he said.

And the community has taken notice.

While just 80 people attended the church regularly in 1996 -- mainly greying east Berliners picking up the Christianity they practiced as children -- the figure has more than doubled to about 200 people today, many of them young professionals.

Even more attend when a baptism is planned and the church has been forced to turn away some parents wishing to have the sacrament performed there due to overbooking.

The Gethsemane Church, which served as a hotbed of protests which helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989, is not alone.

Protestant houses of worship throughout Prenzlauer Berg and the Roman Catholic Herz Jesu church in neighbouring Mitte have undergone a startling transformation in recent years, bucking the secularisation trend in much of western Europe to bring young people back to the fold.

Adding to the challenge was communist East Germany's official policy of atheism where only about 10 percent of the population risked reprisals to practice their religious beliefs.

A major study released this week by the Bertelsmann Foundation think tank pointed to enduring division in Germany -- 78 percent of westerners identified themselves as religious versus just 36 percent of easterners.

A number of factors have helped revive religious life here including an influx of young westerners who have started attending church again since the birth of their children.

Zeiske estimates that half the members of his congregation are originally from the ex-communist east, however, and their reasons for finding God are varied.

Tim Newbrander, a US expatriate with the evangelical group CityChurch Consulting, said easterners told him that organised religion offered them a sense of fellowship that had been missing in the years since unification.

"The feedback that we have been getting is that when the Berlin Wall fell, some of that feeling of community and mutual responsibility for people was lost," he said. "We're trying to encourage that spirit again."

Newbrander, whose group has established a beachhead in the heart of Prenzlauer Berg's gentrifying Boetzow Quarter with a family centre, said Christians in Berlin had to fight negative stereotypes about the church.

"They think of it as an old building that is rather cold and dark with a few grey-haired people sitting there trying to sing a song," said the Michigan native who has lived in Berlin for 11 years.

"But there is a growing interest now, particularly among young families who want some sort of moral training for their kids."

The centre offers sport, tutoring and even a "Brunch with God" on Sundays complete with lattes and croissants.

A member of the centre's staff, Rebekah Carson, said she and her colleagues were careful not to put pressure on potential converts but were up-front about their beliefs.

"We want to bless our community by offering programmes to help parents and give with something positive," the 29-year-old South Carolina native said as a few neighbourhood pupils worked on their homework in the centre's kitchen.

"But we try to be clear about what we're doing and not let anyone feel they've been tricked into something."

The centre has no prominent religious symbols and a recent afternoon singing group with toddlers and their mothers made no mention of Jesus or the Bible.

The softly-softly approach seems to be working and attendance is booming.

One parent, Nadine Sill, said she and her two-year-old daughter Lara-Jay had happened upon the centre one day on their way to the playground.

The Prenzlauer Berg native said she did not grow up religious but liked the warm and welcoming atmosphere at the centre. She said she would be open to an invitation to church from new friends she had met there.

"Now before Christmas it might be very nice," she said.

Sill, 26, said she aimed to give her daughter an ethical upbringing and that if Lara-Jay enjoyed church as she grows older, she would encourage her to keep attending.

"If she got something positive out of it I would be pleased," she said.