A simmering row in Germany over Nazi symbols on church bells has boiled over again, as prosecutors consider whether to bring charges over five churches.
The authorities in the central state of Thuringia have received complaints from a campaigner about the local churches and the regional bishop of the Evangelical Church, Ilse Junkermann, the MDR Thüringen regional broadcaster reports.
Last year swastikas and pro-Hitler inscriptions were found on church bells in Herxheim in the south-west and Schweringen in northern Germany.
Herxheim parish council controversially voted to keep the bell as a “memorial against violence and injustice“, but anonymous protesters took matters into their own hands in Schweringen by chiselling off the insignia in a “spring cleaning of the filth of National Socialism”.
Gilbert Kallenborn, a resident of the Saarland on the border with France, brought the Herxheim case to public attention at the time, and has also brought the latest complaint.
He told MDR that he wrote to the Thuringian prosecutors at the start of the month, accusing the Evangelical Church of “preserving and continuing to use” six bells in the five churches, “in violation of the Penal Code, which bans the preservation and use of anti-constitutional, banned Nazi regalia”, after his complaints to the Church itself before Christmas “went unanswered”.
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The regional council of the Evangelical Church has responded by calling a meeting in April to discuss the matter with the Thuringian authorities and the head of the Jewish community in the state, Reinhard Schramm. Judging by previous discussions, the meeting is likely to be uncomfortable.
The Jewish community in Thuringia has already called for the removal of the bells, according to the Thüringer Allgemeine Zeitung, but the Church says it will take time to decide whether to grind off the inscriptions, remove the bells, or melt them down and re-cast them.
The national leadership of the Church has offered financial support, as has the Thuringian finance ministry, which says it could make lottery funds available to rework the bells or cast new ones.
‘Far-right bell tourism’
The Evangelical Church in Central Germany surveyed its belfries last year, and confirmed that there were still six bells with Nazi inscriptions in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt.
It told the Church newspaper Glaube+Heimat that it would not reveal their location for fear of encouraging “far-right bell tourism” – the practice of neo-Nazis visiting churches to celebrate the mementos of Hitler’s regime.
At the moment, it is up to the parishes in question to deal with the issue.
The State Chancellery – the Thuringian chief minister’s office – said earlier that it saw no actual criminal offence in the use of the bells, and left it to the five parishes in question to “come to a considered decision about how they want to deal responsibly with this part of their history”, MDR reports.
And the Church’s national leadership confirmed last year that it is up to the given parish council to decide what to do with the bells.
“The parish is ultimately the owner of the church,” a spokeswoman told Glaube+Heimat last May.
If the case becomes a criminal matter, federal law would supersede the churches’ private property considerations – but it did not in the case of the surviving bell in Herxheim.
There is also the matter of whether removing, let alone destroying, the bells violates the rules on the preservation of historical monuments.
Church spokesman Friedemann Kahl insists that the bells in question are “not accessible to the public”. “We are confident that we’ll find a good solution,” he told the German Catholic KNA news agency, according to press reports.
Reporting by Martin Morgan
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