Religion and the Revolutions of 1989
BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom—On October 9, 1989, a small crowd gathered to hold prayers for peace at the St. Nicholas Church in the East German city of Leipzig. On this particular day, their prayers spread from the sanctuary of the church to every street of the city and beyond. Over a matter of hours, the prayers grew into a demonstration of 70,000 people, who chanted, held candles, and walked through the city peacefully protesting against the East German communist regime. Despite fears that the demonstration would be brutally suppressed, the march was not challenged by the police and security services, and was in fact broadcast on national television.
Although the Leipzig protest was publicly condemned by the authorities, protestors in other cities followed suit. Erich Honecker, the East German communist leader, was forced by popular pressure to resign on October 18. The domino effect of these events helped lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9. East Germany is not the only place that felt the effects of religious and political ferment in late 1989. On December 1, Pope John Paul II welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev in Rome for an unusually long audience. The two leaders discussed the engagement of religious communities in perestroika and the ways in which religious freedom was observed in the communist world. John Paul II raised concerns regarding the situation of the Greek Catholic churches, which had been persecuted.
The meeting between the two leaders reinforced a major shift in the policy of the Soviet Union: Moscow would no longer intervene to defend its fellow Warsaw Pact communist regimes from popular uprisings. One by one, these regimes succumbed to peaceful or violent revolutions in which religious and political symbolism were closely intertwined. Communist regimes had regarded churches as transitory institutions that could ultimately be replaced by the establishment of socialism. Instead, the 1989 revolutions highlighted how the domain of churches was not exclusively spiritual but also closely connected to structures of political power.
Revolution was most poignantly expressed in the violent events in Romania. The unrest started on December 16 as an attempt to prevent the eviction of László Tőkés, a dissident Hungarian Reformed Pastor in Timişoara. By the time they reached the capital, the protests had turned into violent demonstrations. The regime published a telegram from Patriarch Teoctist, the most senior hierarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, praising President Nicolae Ceauşescu’s determination to stop the demonstrations. On December 21 and 22, Ceauşescu gave his last speeches from the balcony of the Central Committee of the Communist Party Building in Bucharest, in an unsuccessful attempt to appease the demonstrators. On Christmas Day, Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were condemned by a military tribunal and executed by firing squad. Patriarch Teoctist resigned and fled to Sinaia Monastery, where he remained until April 1990, when he was reinstated.
There were new national symbols: songs of freedom declaring that “God come and see what is left of the people” and large stone crosses erected in Bucharest’s University Square, where many young protestors had died. A quarter of a century later, the religious and political legacy of the 1989 revolutions across Eastern Europe is still visible. Churches that were suppressed during the communist period, such as the Greek Catholic churches, regained freedom, although inter-denominational tensions have arisen around the issues of property restitution, state funding, and the national status of churches.
At the institutional level, in many cases, the lustration of political regimes was not followed by that of religious structures. At the local level, religiosity saw a significant increase, especially in Poland and Romania. At the same time, churches like Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church that were deeply challenged by their previous relations with the communist regimes split or — like the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic — witnessed a significant decrease in followers. After the fall of communism, a small section of the Berlin Wall was displayed in Geneva outside the headquarters of the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches, the largest ecumenical organizations representing the Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches in Europe.
Twenty-five years later, the Wall reminds the faithful not only of relations between religious and political powers during the Cold War period, but also of the removal of barriers in the making of a united Europe. Churches are engaging in dialogue not only at the national level but also with supranational institutions. The 2014 decision to move the headquarters of the Conference of European Churches from Geneva to Brussels follows the increasing political engagement of churches. The complex relationship between religion and politics, as manifested in Leipzig, Rome, Timişoara, and elsewhere, now has a European dimension that brings together East and West.
Lucian Leustean is a senior fellow with the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.