Protestant Church congress focuses on dialogue

The 34th annual German Protestant Church conference is taking place in Hamburg May 1-5. More than 100,000 people - including a number of high-profile politicians - will pray, celebrate and discuss together.

Sunny skies greeted the guests of this year's German Protestant Church congress as it kicked off Wednesday in the northern city of Hamburg. Adherents have traveled from all over Germany - and from even farther away - to attend the myriad events offered in the congress.

Fernando Amalia is from Colombia. He's looking forward to "the wonderful opportunity to come together with other Christians."

Christiane Kemmerer-Maus traveled to Hamburg with her husband and family. She's expecting "many new ideas, to get to know a lot of nice people, to simply celebrate with other Christians."

For retiree Gisela Ewald Scheune, who comes from Stuttgart in southern Germany, the congress is "something very special, with everything that goes with the church."

500 events per day

Hamburg is hosting the religious gathering, which will run for five days, for the fourth time. Planned topics such as social cohesion, the energy transition and the limits of growth show that politics will play a role here as well.

The motto for this year's conference is "as much as you need," and participants are expected to take in what they want from the more than 2,500 events planned for the next several days: lectures, discussions and bible study groups, as well as exhibits, music and cultural events. The program catalog is 600 pages long.

Attendees then gather by the thousands in the city's churches - including in Catholic churches - in the afternoon to sing and pray. Mosques and synagogues are supposed to follow in the coming days.

Masses overtake city

The largest of four open-air services took place in Hamburg's newly renovated Hafen City. As ships on the Elbe River blew their horns, the blue of this year's church congress shawls - which visitors used to shade themselves from the sun - is reflected in the glass of the modern buildings. The grounds where the service took place were filled to over-capacity and had to be closed.

Protestant Bishop Kirsten Fehrs gave a sermon about the conference motto, which has its origin in the Book of Moses.

As the Jews left Egypt in the Exodus, God rained down manna - or bread - upon them, the story goes. Since this bread was perishable, the bible advised people to take "just what they needed."

Fehrs explained the saying to mean "that which you really need, God will provide daily." She said "it's about benevolence, kindness, meaning and blessing."

Society and politics

Innumerable brass ensembles, bands and choirs take care of the music during the service. Congress President Gerhard Robbers opened by stating that the Protestant gathering should send the message that it sought dialogue with other religions.

German President Joachim Gauck, who was once a Protestant minister in former East Germany, spoke of the significance of religion, saying that the country should listen to the topics and initiatives of the conference. "Society should acknowledge this, and seriously consider it," Gauck said.

Besides the German president, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her opponent in the next election - Social Democrat Peer Steinbr├╝ck - will also speak at the conference, reflecting the continuing significance of religion for politics in largely Christian Germany, five months ahead of national elections.

Aside from society and politics, the focus ultimately turns back to the church. In services, bible groups and forums, believers hope for an injection of energy into their congregations.

Controversial topics will also be discussed, such as the ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church - which both faiths apparently wish to advance.

Inter-religious dialogue

Dialogue with Jews or Muslims is equally important, said Bishop Fehrs. "It needs to connect all religions," she said. And she added, "the love of peace shouldn't get lost." It must be absolutely clear, Fehrs said, that "tolerance stops at intolerance." She admonished "fascistic, fundamentalist, violence-oriented abuse of religion."

Perhaps that's why Fernando Amalia is so curious about the meetings with Jews and Muslims. He also considers dialogue between religions "important." He plans to enter the fray on Thursday, when 300,000 believers are expected to converge in downtown Hamburg.

There, the city lights will be reflected in the Inner Alster Lake, while colored lights illuminate fountains in the gathering's traditional evening event.