FORT WAYNE, Indiana – The American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) recently held talks with representatives of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) on October 10-11, 2017 to discuss entering into altar and pulpit fellowship, as well as to consider potential opportunities for partnership.
Representing the SELK at the meetings were Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt and Rev. Dr. Werner Klän. Representing the AALC were Presiding Pastor Curtis Leins, Rev. Richard Shields, and Rev. Joseph Dapelo.
The meetings began the morning of October 10 on the campus of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the AALC has its national headquarters. Presiding Pastor Curtis Leins of the AALC led opening devotions. Discussions the first day focused on confessional basis and ecclesial identity, as well as the doctrines of Holy Scripture, God, sin, the Son of God, the Holy Spirit, justification and sanctification, the Church, and the office of the Holy Ministry, with general agreement on the issues discussed.
Leading the SELK’s delegation was Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, who also serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a growing association of confessional Lutheran church bodies worldwide. Both SELK and the AALC are member churches of the ILC. The second day of meetings between SELK and the AALC began with devotions led by Bishop Voigt, followed by discussions on the sacraments, worship, ethics, and eschatology, with the two sides finding consensus in these areas.
Each group plans to encourage their respective church bodies to vote on entering into fellowship at coming conventions (SELK at their pastoral convention in November 2017 and the AALC at their general convention in June 2018).
Earlier in 2017, the AALC also entered into fellowship talks with Lutheran Church in Norway (Den Lutherske Kirke i Norge – LKN). March saw talks between the AALC’s President Pastor Leins, Rev. Dapelo, and Rev. Jordan Cooper and the LKN’s Bishop Torkild Msavie and Rev. Eirik-Kornelius Garnes-Lunde. On the basis of those talks, the LKN decided to enter into fellowship with the AALC. The AALC will bring the matter forward for a vote at the AALC’s general convention in June 2018. The LKN, like SELK and the AALC, is a member church of the International Lutheran Council.
CANADA – Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) held its 2017 synodical convention October 13-16, 2017 in Kitchener, Ontario, during which time they elected a new president: Rev. Timothy Teuscher. The convention also elected Rev. Thomas Kruesel to serve as LCC’s Vice President.
“I humbly bow to the will and decision of the convention and accept my election to serve as president of our synod,” said President Elect Teuscher in remarks to convention delegates the day after his election. “I ask for your patience and prayers, your understanding, your support, your counsel, and your advice.”
Rev. Teuscher currently serves as First Vice President of the East District of Lutheran Church–Canada and pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Stratford, Ontario. He succeeds Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, who had announced in early 2017 that he would not be standing for reelection. Dr. Bugbee was elected President of LCC in 2008, and was acclaimed to second and third terms without opposition in 2011 and 2014. He further served the International Lutheran Council as its Vice Chairman for several terms.
Delegates to the 2017 convention voted to restructure the Canadian church body, accepting changes to the church’s statutory bylaws, constitution, and synodical bylaws (changes to the constitution now go to congregations for ratification). Under the new structure, congregations will relate directly to synod (rather than through the previous Districts), with congregations to be grouped in at least three regions. Other changes include the move to a four-year convention cycle.
The 2017 convention also took time to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The opening worship service saw President Bugbee preach on the convention’s theme: Christ Alone, Christ Forever. Bible studies focused on texts prominent during the Reformation. Delegates took in a special Reformation concert featuring J.S. Bach’s Cantata 199 and Felix Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony as performed by the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra. And all delegates received a free copy of Saints of the Reformation, a book published by LCC to recognize the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The book is available as an e-book for free or in hard copy for less than $5 CAD.
Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, Chairman of the International Lutheran Council and Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) brought greetings to the convention: “It is my prayer for Lutheran Church–Canada that our Heavenly Father will always look kindly on your church,” he said, “and that He will answer our prayers for the well-being and extension of confessional Lutheranism worldwide.”
Numerous other international guests representing ILC churches were present for the event, including representatives of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, The American Association of Lutheran Churches, the Lutheran Church in Peru, the Lutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua, and the Lutheran Ministerium and Synod-USA. The convention also received written greetings from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil, Japan Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina, the Free Evangelical-Lutheran Synod in South Africa, the Lutheran Church of Australia, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia.
GERMANY – September 27, 2017 marked the 200th anniversary of the Prussian King Fredrick William III’s Order-in-Council, which marked the beginning of a rather distressing journey towards the formation of autonomous Evangelical Lutheran Churches in the former Prussian territories. Beginning in 1817, Frederick William III issued a series of decrees which pushed Lutheran and Reformed churches to merge. Later decrees required churches to give up the name “Lutheran” or “Reformed” in favour of the name “Evangelical,” and to adopt a new liturgy which privileged Reformed theology in the area of Holy Communion at the expense of Lutheran beliefs.
Many Lutherans protested and their pastors refused to use the new rite. When caught using historic Lutheran liturgies, these pastors were suspended from ministry. If they were further caught continuing to practice pastoral care, they were then imprisoned. The persecution of these “Old Lutherans,” as they were called, led eventually to the formation of independent confessional Lutheran church bodies throughout German territories.
The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständigen Evangelisch Lutherischen Kirche – SELK) in Germany traces its origins to this movement, as do confessional Lutheran churches in other German territories. Some Old Lutherans emigrated from Germany to other nations in pursuit of religious freedom. The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (SELK), for example, grew out of this exodus, as did the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA). SELK and the LCMS are both member churches of the ILC, while the LCA is an associate member.
On September 27, to mark the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Prussian Union, the persecution of the Old Lutherans, and the origins of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, Bishop of the SELK, released the following letter. Bishop Voigt is also Chairman of the International Lutheran Council. (Read the letter in German here.)
Remarks on the 200th anniversary of the Frederick William III’s Union Decree
Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt
I would not want to let this date pass without pointing out its significance. We have no cause to celebrate, because September 27, 1817 is the beginning of the suppression of Lutheran congregations and their pastors by Prussian authorities. And this is the cause for Lutheran families to become refugees, feeling compelled to flee to North America and to Australia, where they founded Lutheran churches that are now sister churches of the SELK.
No one less than Dr. Martin Luther himself, at the conclusion of the attempted union discussion at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, with great regret felt it necessary to say: “You have a different spirit!” In his order-in-council released September 27, 1817, Frederick William III called this “an unfortunate sectarian spirit,” which evidenced “insurmountable difficulties” in Martin Luther’s person. To the King’s mind, the Lutheran and Reformed Churches 300 years after the Reformation were “separated protestant churches merely by certain external differences.” Thus begun the attempt to marginalize the Lutheran Church in Prussia.
On September 27, 1817, the King still claimed: “This union will only be of real value when it is effected neither by persuasion nor by indifferentism, rather that it should arise out of the free conviction of those involved, so that it is not only a union in mere external form but indeed has its roots and vital strength in a unity of the heart, according to genuine Biblical principles.” Some time later Frederick William III dissociated himself from this position, and ordered the acceptance of a union agenda which he had authored, in which Reformed and Lutheran worship was amalgamated.
It was at this point that real persecution commenced. The congregations in Silesia still remembered the persecution that was visited upon them during the rule of the Habsburgs, less than 100 years earlier. And so most of them were still aware of what they had to do. They held their worship services in the forests. Various congregations in Pomerania and in the provinces along the Rhine followed their example. At times, every Lutheran pastor was in jail.
I want to remind all of us of this willingness on the part of the mothers and fathers of our church to suffer and of their courageous faith. They were ready to consider questions of their faith; Holy Communion was for them so important that under no circumstances were they willing to question the certainty of the body and blood of Christ under bread and wine. They were even willing, after the legalization of the Lutheran Church from 1845 on, to continue paying state church contributions, while in addition giving their own offerings for the construction of new Lutheran churches and parsonages and for the salaries of their pastors. This sacrificial spirit in hard times is exemplary. And our church today is alive because of this same sacrificial spirit.
It is of some value to remember this and keep it alive. But at the same time it is important for our church not to maintain the role of a victim. During the last several years we have engaged in dialogue with the Union of Evangelical Churches (UEK) within the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD — the Protestant Federation of the State Churches in Germany). For the first time in 200 years we have taken a look at our common history. We have drafted a Gemeinsames Wort (“Common Address”) and a Brief an die Gemeinden (Letter to the Congregations); they are still in the process of being finalized for adoption. Both of these papers are to be signed in a Service of Repentance and Thanksgiving on the Day of Repentance and Prayer, November 22, 2017 in Berlin. These documents still clearly enunciate remaining differences separating our churches, but we also express our gratitude for common viewpoints.
This process was initiated by a very moving sermon preached 50 years ago (1967) by Franz-Reinhold Hildebrandt. At the time, he was head of the Chancellery of the Evangelical Church of the Union (EKU). In that sermon, he said: “Our church stands in guilt that is still not dealt with. Rifle butts by soldiers, forcible entry into churches and the arrest of pastors, that’s what happened. And so at that time many families left their home and emigrated to Australia and North America. They wanted to keep pure their Lutheran faith, which they saw endangered in the Union. And if guilt can only be obliterated by forgiveness, then we don’t want to let this day pass without asking our Old Lutheran brethren for such forgiveness.”
All of us today have a lasting responsibility for our history. Because we participate in the blessings that our church bestows on us, so we are also responsible for any suffering and guilt in our history. This background makes it important, to grant human forgiveness—to ask for the same and to grant it.
This day fills me with mournful remembrance and great respect for the suffering the mothers and fathers of our church had to bear. But on the other hand I am full of gratitude for the Lutheran Church into which I was baptized: the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). I am also filled with gratitude for the thorough and respectful discussions with the representatives of the UEK. They will enable both churches to look at one another in a spirit different than in the past.
USA – While the United States continues to struggle under severe flooding in the state of Texas, Lutherans are present bringing relief to those affected.
Hurricane Harvey has been declared the most expensive rainfall disaster in American history, outstripping previous hurricanes that hit New Orleans in 2005 and New York City in 2012. The Category 4 storm hit landfall in Texas, quickly making its way to Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, striking numerous other communities along the way. At least fifty people have been killed, with flooding displacing more than one million people and damaging an estimated 200,000 homes. Recovery is expected to cost anywhere from $150 billion to $180 billion USD. In the end, Houston received more than 1.3 meters of rain (more than fifty inches) in just a few days.
As floodwaters slowly recede, disaster relief and recovery projects are well underway. At the front of many of these efforts are members of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), as local congregations, district leaders, and the church’s national LCMS department of World Relief and Human Care reach out with relief and support to victims of the storm.
A major source of that support comes in the form of pastoral care. In a recent news story, the LCMS notes that “as more and more [people] return to their houses and as more people express their needs, the efforts of those who work to give them aid increase.” That situation provides Lutherans the opportunity to provide renewed pastoral care. “The love and the promises of God remain stronger than any disaster or occurrence that befall His people,” the report explains. “In the midst of catastrophe, pastors share the comfort and hope of the Gospel.”
Pastoral care is complemented by material care as well. Trinity Klein Lutheran Church in Spring, Texas, for example, has served as an evacuation centre for those displaced due to flooding. Salem Lutheran Church in Tomball, meanwhile, began providing three hot meals a day to a local shelter. Members of Memorial Lutheran Church in Katy were likewise active immediately, helping members of the wider community recover from damage, helping remove ruined drywall and baseboards from flooded homes, among other work as necessary. Countless other LCMS congregations and members have been actively caring for the physical needs of those impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
The national church’s World Relief and Human Care department has likewise been on the ground, determining the best opportunity for service. An LCMS assessment team led by the church’s Director for Disaster Response Ross Johnson left August 30 for Texas. The team carried with them emergency supplies for distribution, including diapers, wipers, work gloves, face masks, batteries, flashlights, and cases of water. In addition to helping with immediate needs, the team was tasked with determining how the LCMS could best serve recovery efforts now and in the long term.
“The Missouri Synod has tremendous disaster capacity,” noted LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison. “The great thing we have is local people…. We recognize that locals understand the situation, and solutions must be local. We come alongside them and assist them in their particular challenges.”
He encouraged people to pray, to volunteer, and to give. “This effort is going to take years to bring people back into their homes, and care for them in many and various ways. Especially pray for our pastors and teachers. They are suffering mightily and they are serving greatly right now.”
LCMS headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri meanwhile became a centre and for the collection and shipping of supplies for flood-stricken Texas. On September 2, volunteers of all ages loaded a semi-truck with generators, power washers, and other supplies to aid in hurricane relief efforts among the local populace.
The LCMS writes that the primary need right now is donations to fund relief efforts. The church notes that there are several giving options. These include:
Text — Type LCMSHarvey into the text message field and send it to 41444. You’ll receive a text back with a link to a phone-friendly, secure donation form.
Phone — Call 888-930-4438 to make a credit-card donation. Calling hours (Central time) begin at 8 a.m. and have been extended this weekend to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Labor Day Monday.
Mail — Make check payable to “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” or “LCMS.” On the memo line, please write “Disaster Response/Relief” or “Hurricane Harvey.” Mail your donation to: The LCMS, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.
NORWAY – On May 25, 2017, The Lutheran Church in Norway (Den lutherske kirke i Norge – LKN) consecrated Rev. Torkild Masvie as its Bishop.
Bishop Masvie was installed into his office by Archbishop Jānis Vanags of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL), assisted by Bishop Arri Kugappi of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), Bishop Hanss Jensons of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, , and President Dan Gilbert of the Northern Illinois District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The LKN’s Deputy Bishop Rev. Alf Danbolt led the Norwegian part of the consecration.
Prior to his consecration, Bishop Masvie had previously served the LKN as provisional bishop. The LKN is a young church with five congregations and 90 baptized members. It dates back to the 2005 founding of the Church of the Messiah. The church has four pastors in active duty and one retired pastor. It was accepted into membership in the International Lutheran Council during the 2015 World Conference in Argentina.
The LCMS and the ELCIR are fellow members of the International Lutheran Council with the Lutheran Church in Norway. The ELCL is a member church of the Lutheran World Federation, but is in fellowship with the LCMS.
NAMIBIA – The Twelfth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) met May 10-16, 2017 in Winhoek, Namibia, and Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) was present as an ecumenical guest. Chairman Voigt is also Bishop of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK).
During their Assembly, the LWF celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with a service in the Sam Nujoma Stadium in the Capital of Namibia. In his greetings to the assembly, Chairman Voigt expressed his gratitude for the kind invitation to attend as an ecumenical observer. He noted that the ILC’s historical roots date back to the Prussian Empire in Germany, which grew in power throughout much of Germany in the nineteenth century. As part of that consolidation of power, the Prussian King enacted the Prussian Union of Churches in 1817, which forced a merger of Lutheran and Reformed churches.
A number of Lutheran congregations rejected this Prussian Union, especially because of differences between Reformed and Lutherans on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Those who resisted the Prussian Union formed the “Old Lutheran Church” in Germany. But the Old Lutherans faced significant persecution from the government, with many of their pastors imprisoned, causing numerous Lutheran families to emigrate to the United States of America, Canada, Brazil, and Australia. In these new lands, they established Lutheran church bodies that adhered to the Lutheran Confessions—churches that today are members of the ILC. In addition to marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, then, 2017 also marks the 200th anniversary since the founding of the Union Church and the subsequent persecution of the Old Lutherans.
More recently, Chairman Voigt noted, “The origins of the International Lutheran Council proper can be traced to its foundational conference in 1952. “Today it represents 3.3 million Lutherans worldwide in 38 member churches.”
In his remarks, Chairman Voigt also addressed the confusion and mistrust which exists between some members of the ILC and the LWF. “What are the reasons for these frustrations?” he asked, noting we must take the concerns seriously. In particular, he said, we must ask: “Do we have a different understanding of hermeneutics for the use and understanding of our confessions?”
To better address these kinds of questions, the ILC and LWF began in 2005 a series of annual conversations. This year, the discussions included two theological presentations—one from each side—on the “The Importance of our Understanding of the Scriptures for the Unity of the Church.” In his address to the LWF, Chairman Voigt highlighted a selection from the LWF’s presentation (given by Rev. Dr. Hans-Peter Grosshans): “In the Lutheran tradition, priority was generally given to theology to express form and life out the church’s oneness and the unity of the various churches.”
Finally, Chairman Voigt noted the theme of the LWF Assembly—“Liberated by God’s Grace”—and provided two short sentences of commentary. “First we must remember, as Anselm of Canterbury says, that we should not underestimate human guiltiness and iniquity,” he explained. “Second, we must remember, as Martin Luther says, that it is nearly impossible to overestimate God’s grace; for He is like a glowing oven, full of love, reaching from earth to heaven.”
“I wish this overwhelming warm love in your hearts and into your Assembly,” he concluded.
On May 13, 2017 the LWF Assembly elected Rev. Dr. Musa Panti Filibus, the Archbishop of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria, as its new President. Chairman Voigt congratulated him on his election, and expressed pleasure in having had the opportunity to meet him earlier in 2012, when Dr. Filibus represented the LWF as an ecumenical guest to the ILC’s 2012 World Conference in Niagara Falls, Canada.
HANOVER, Germany – From May 1-2, 2017, Rev. Ville Typpö and Rev. Mikko Tiira of the Istanbul Lutheran Church (İstanbul Luteryen Kilisesi – ILK) visited the national office of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) in Hanover. Rev. Typpö oversees the young Lutheran church body in Turkey. Meanwhile, Rev. Tiira is stationed in Izmir, the Biblical city of Smyrna.
The Istanbul Lutheran Church numbers 200 members in four congregations: two in Turkey (in Istanbul and Izmir) and two in Bulgaria (Peshtera and Krusevo). Some ILK members from Bulgaria have emigrated to Germany in recent years. ILK pastors seek to help the transition of these people to German Lutheran congregations. The SELK’s pastoral leader, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, pledged the spiritual support of his church.
In addition there was discussion about possible cooperation between the Lutheran Theological Seminary of the SELK in Oberursel, Germany and the Evangelical Lutheran Institute of Religion (ELRIM) in Istanbul. The visitors from Turkey emphasized that students from Germany are always welcome at ELRIM. There one can learn of Islam as practiced in Turkey, while cultivating contacts with the Orthodox and other Eastern churches. Lectures by visiting German professors would be very much encouraged.
Following the Hanover consultations, Revs. Typpö and Tiira traveled on to Luther’s Wittenberg to participate in a conference at the Old Latin School, a joint project of the SELK and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). Bishop Voigt remarked to the SELK News Service that the Lutheran work in Turkey impresses him deeply. Along the way there was also discussion on political issues. The conversation with the visiting pastors confirmed his impression that one cannot ignore the ideologizing taking place in Turkish society.
The Istanbul Lutheran Church is a Turkish-speaking confessional Lutheran church body officially established in 2004. It carries on the tradition of the first Lutheran congregation in Turkey established in Constantinople in 1709. In addition to SELK, it has developed closer relations with the LCMS in recent years, signing a Working Agreement with them in 2015. (You can find out more about the history and work of the ILK by reading this 2013 interview between The Canadian Lutheran and Rev. Typpö).
SELK and the LCMS are member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies. Bishop Voigt of the SELK serves the ILC as its chairman.
With files from a SELK News story as translated by Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, Lutheran Church–Canada.
BRAZIL – On April 5, 2017, Rev. Dr. Leopoldo Heimann, former chairman of the International Lutheran Council, died in the Lord at the age of 83. Dr. Heimann served as chairman of the International Lutheran Council from 1995-1998.
Dr. Heimann was born in Erechim, a city in the south of Brazil, on December 10, 1933. A 1960 graduate of Concordia Seminary at Porto Alegre, Dr. Heimann served as a pastor in congregations in Ponta Grossa and Porto Alegre from 1960 until 1973, when he became editor of the IELB’s publications. He became President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (Igreja Evangelica Luterana do Brasil – IELB) in 1990, a position he held through 1998.
Dr. Heimann was elected chairman of the ILC at the 16th Conference of the International Lutheran Council, held in Adelaide, Australia in 1995. He was reelected chairman at the following conference in 1997, held in St. Louis, Missouri, and served until 1998 when he completed his tenure as President of the IELB.
He received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne, Indiana) in 1996. After leaving the presidency of the IELB, Dr. Heimann served as a professor and Director of the Faculty of Theology at the Lutheran University in Canoas.
He was married to Marie Luize Rotmann and had three children. A funeral service took place on April 6, 2017 in São Leopoldo.
“Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them’” – (Revelation 14:13).
UKRAINE – The heads of several Lutheran churches in the former Soviet Union recently met together in Ukraine for the Eastern European Bishops Conference, along with the heads of their North American partner churches.
The conference, held in Odessa in late February, was hosted by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (DELKU) and its Bishop Sergey Maschewski. DELKU, long associated with the state (territorial) Lutheran churches of Germany, has in recent years begun aligning itself with more conservative bodies like The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC). In addition to the presidents of LCC and LCMS, DELKU also hosted the bishops (or their representatives) from several other Lutheran church bodies in eastern Europe, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (LELB), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania (ELCL), the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine (SELCU), and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). The conference also welcomed a number of ecumenical guests.
During the conference, the bishops reported on their respective churches and the challenges they face. A number of these churches have to do their work over long distances: SELC, for example, is stretched out over a vast territory spanning 7,000 kilometers. DELKU, as another example, struggles with a severe clergy shortage, currently operating 28 congregations with only nine pastors. Many of these congregations are distant from the nearest neighbouring pastor or parish.
The bishops also discussed opportunities for future cooperation between their churches. “United by much of our common history and—what is of more relevance today—by similar theological outlook, we felt that there was a need for closer cooperation in the future,” explained Rev. Alexey Strelstov, rector of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church’s seminary in Novosibirsk, Russia. Rev. Strelstov presented on education in a confessional Lutheran context on the final day of the conference.
Part of that future cooperation may well take place on theological education. One evening of the conference, the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine invited participants to visit their seminary in Usatovo, a suburb of Odessa. Representatives of the Siberian church expressed interest in forging closer ties with SELCU on seminary education. There were discussions on assisting the Ukrainian seminary in procuring more Russian-language theological books for its library, as well as the possibility of SELC seminary professors coming to teach short-term courses in Usatovo. “The interaction between these Russian speakers, all keenly interested in the faithful biblical training of pastors, was a real joy to watch,” noted LCC President Robert Bugbee. LCC has long-supported SELCU’s seminary education program.
Morning and afternoon devotions at the bishops’ conference were held in DELKU’s Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of the Apostle Paul in downtown Odessa, restored in recent years after having been destroyed by the Soviet regime decades ago. “Although this church was rebuilt on a somewhat smaller scale, it once seated 1,200 worshippers and was the centre for spiritual life of the entire German community before the communist repression,” noted LCC President Bugbee. Lutheran churches were severely persecuted during the soviet era.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church are both members of the International Lutheran Council, as are Lutheran Church–Canada and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine is a partner church of LCC, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania are partner churches of the LCMS. The German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine, meanwhile, has been seeking closer relations to the LCMS in recent years.
GERMANY – While most Canadians celebrated the Christmas season in relative comfort, that wasn’t the case for all people across the world. In particular, one German pastor is raising the situation of Iranian and Afghan converts to Christianity living in Germany, who are facing mass deportation despite the dangers they will certainly face if they are returned to their homelands.
Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin-Steglitz, a member congregation of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). This congregation, along with several other SELK churches, have welcomed hundreds of converts to Christianity in recent years, mostly Iranian and Afghan refugees living in Germany. Dr. Martens and his congregation were widely covered in international media in early 2016 for their work among refugees. But the German government has recently begun to deny en masse the refugee claims of many of these converts, following what Dr. Martens is calling deeply flawed refugee hearings.
“Desperate reports have been reaching me from members of our congregation,” he writes in a letter released December 23. “At this time, the Federal Ministry for Immigration and Refugees is rejecting almost all applications for asylum from our Iranian members, and in many cases also from our Afghan congregational members and candidates for baptism, and is sending them deportation notices.”
Germany has recently increased the number of personnel responsible for hearing asylum applications—a necessary change, given many refugees have been waiting three years for their first hearing. “Yet not even in our worst nightmares could we have pictured what this change would entail,” Dr. Martens says. “Many [of those hearing the cases] are manifestly clueless about the situation of Christians in Iran and Afghanistan, and worse yet they are utterly clueless concerning questions relating to the Christian faith. But all of this does not prevent them from assuming the role of self-appointed experts, whose questions ‘unmask’ the supposedly deceitful Iranian asylum applicants one after another, even when those hearing the cases don’t even know the difference between the [Apostle’s] Creed, and the Our Father [Lord’s Prayer].”
Instead, refugees are being tasked with obscure or even irrelevant questions to determine the “authenticity” of their conversions. “Questions are put such as the names of the two sons in the parable of the Prodigal Son, or what Martin Luther died of, or the occasion of Queen Margarethe of Denmark’s recent visit to Wittenberg,” Dr. Martens reports. “In this way, Christians who learned the first elements of the Christian faith in their house church in Iran are well and truly hung out to dry. Many hearings are more like kangaroo courts in which our congregational members and candidates for baptism have absolutely no chance of presenting what is important to them.”
Dr. Martens further reports that those hearing the cases are dismissing or even mocking the refugees when they express their faith in the importance of Christ dying on the cross for their sins. “What the applicant says here makes absolutely no sense,” one official is said to write in his official reports. Those tasked with translating for the court—mostly Muslims with little knowledge of the Christian faith, and in some cases reportedly hostile to it—are also accused of incorrectly or even falsely translating what the refugees say during their hearings. Such improper questioning and translating seriously damages the applicants’ claims for refugee status, as the final decision is made elsewhere in Germany on the basis of these reports and transcripts.
Dr. Martens says the flaws in the system are so great that the situation must inevitably be raised to a higher court. “Orders have obviously been given from above no longer to recognize Iranian converts as having the right to asylum in our country,” Dr. Martens suggests. “The systematic failure of the Federal Ministry in hundreds of cases must come to the light of day through the efforts of the superior courts.”
The challenges come after a year of other difficulties, as converts to Christianity have faced increasing persecution from Muslim refugees angry at their conversions from Islam. “This year many of them suffered violent attacks from Muslim residents of their institutional homes and from Muslim watchmen once they learned of their conversion. Time and time again—most recently last week—we have had to collect people from residences, in order to prevent worse from befalling them,” he notes. The attacks even led SELKS’ bishop earlier this year to call on the government to give Christian refugees to be given separate accommodations from Muslim refugees. “But our congregational members and candidates for baptism are continually finding that those who attack them and threaten them with death have no problem securing the right of abode here in Germany, while they themselves—the ones under attack—are ‘exposed’ by the Federal Ministry as not entitled to asylum.”
As an example, Dr. Martens notes the case of six Christian converts who were beaten by a group of nearly 100 radical Muslim asylum applicants in February 2016. Police dogs had to be released in order to protect the Christians. And yet the police investigation was eventually dropped. Now, the six Christians are among those receiving deportation notices.
Despite the challenges, Dr. Martens reports good news too for his congregation. In his letter he goes on to explain the process by which refugees are instructed in the Christian faith prior to baptism—or excluded, if a genuine conversion is not evident. Currently baptisms sit at between 30 and 40 a month. And renovations to the building to accommodate more refugees continue apace.
Dr. Martens ends his letter with a request for prayer. “Please keep praying for the work here in Stegltiz,” he writes. “It is and remains in many ways a spiritual battle loaded with many afflictions and temptations. And yet for me personally, even after 25 years, it remains the most beautiful service in the world, which I would never exchange for anything else. Pray above all that all the members who have found their way to our congregation in the last years may continue to hold to Christ and not let their love for their Lord falter!”
You can download Dr. Martens’ full letter here. The translation is by Rev. Dr. John Stephenson of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario).
SELK is a member church of the International Lutheran Council (ILC).