The pastor opened the wrought-iron doors of St. Petri’s Church in the German city of Chemnitz and sighed in relief when he saw the long line of people waiting in the cold for coronavirus vaccines.
Together with the parish council, Reverend Christoph Herbst had invited a relief organization and volunteer doctors to organize a Sunday vaccination clinic at the Lutheran Church. The act of community outreach, the pastor knew, might not go well in a part of Germany prone to vaccine resistance, including sometimes violent protests.
“I was very unsure of how people would react to our offer,” Herbst said, welcoming the crowd who were waiting at his Gothic Revival house of prayer. “In our region, there are very different and very polarized views on the measures against the coronavirus in general, on how to fight the pandemic, and especially on vaccinations.
The state of Saxony, where Chemnitz and the city of Dresden are located, has the lowest vaccination rate of the 16 German federal states and one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases. Only 60.1% of residents were fully vaccinated by Christmas, compared to a national average of 70.8%. At times during the pandemic, local hospitals had to transfer patients out of state because all intensive care beds were full.
Lutheran pastors across Saxony have used their sermons to promote immunization as the most effective way to prevent serious illness and end the pandemic. Like Herbst, many have opened their churches for clinics this month, hoping that offering jabs in familiar surroundings and without prior registration might persuade some refractors.
“We believe that we have a responsibility that goes beyond ourselves and that we need to do something for society with the resources we have,” Herbst explained. “We are not doctors and we are not professionals. But we have the space and we have volunteers who can organize something like that.
Chemnitz, a city of around 247,000 inhabitants, was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt when it and the rest of Saxony were part of the former communist East Germany. Many local immunization opponents, Herbst said, are worried about possible side effects, but also feel overwhelmed by what they see as excessive pressure from the authorities or general opposition to any measure approved by the government.
Hannelore and Bernd Hilbert, a retired couple from the nearby village of Amtsberg, were among those who sat patiently on a bench waiting to roll up their sleeves at the church in Herbst. They came to be vaccinated because some of their five grandchildren are too young to be vaccinated, and the Hilberts were hoping to see them for Christmas.
“Last year’s Christmas was really sad. We were all alone, ”said Hannelore Hilbert, 70.
“We are grateful to the church for providing these injections,” added her 72-year-old husband, who said he had waited unsuccessfully for the injections at a hospital a few days earlier.
The vast majority of church’s vaccinated on a recent Sunday turned out to have more in common with the couple looking for a reminder than skeptical or frightened members of the community that pastors in Saxony are trying to reach.
Of the 251 vaccines given during the St. Petri Day Clinic, 18 were given to people receiving their first dose. None of them wanted to speak to The Associated Press about why they had changed their minds and decided to be vaccinated almost a year after the start of the mass vaccination campaign in Germany.
A strong minority in Germany has opposed any kind of anti-virus measures since the start of the pandemic. The resistance has grown angrier and more aggressive in recent weeks after the national parliament this month passed a mandate to vaccinate certain professions and most parts of the country resumed some form of restrictions in response to the latest wave of infections.
With mass protests banned in several parts of the country due to the pandemic, opponents of vaccination have rallied for protest “marches” – unauthorized marches staged swiftly through social media. About 30 protesters showed up with torches outside the home of Saxony State Health Minister Petra Koepping one night, shouting insults until police arrived.
Protests have swelled in recent days, sometimes drawing thousands of people. Police arrested several participants for assaulting officers and journalists. Some Lutheran pastors have received criticism and personal threats for their efforts to encourage vaccination.
Herbst said he believed the majority of Saxons supported the country’s vaccination campaign and that far-right groups keen to undermine democracy had co-opted anti-vaccination sentiment, fueling a sentiment already present among residents of the east of Germany to feel left behind 30 years after the country’s reunification.
When parishioners confront him about their opposition to vaccinations, the parish priest says he is trying to listen instead of judging.
“And I listen to things that are sometimes hard to hear,” he said. “I also listen to things that I think belong in the realm of conspiracy theories. I do not confirm them. But it is important that there is a space where we listen to each other without immediately falling into condemnation.
However, the pastor wonders if at this point all the arguments for and against vaccinations have been exchanged and the decision to get vaccinated or not should no longer be left to personal choice.
“There are people who say what is needed now is a democratically legitimized decision by Parliament on a general vaccine mandate,” Herbst said. “It would be a decision that doesn’t work on moral pressure, but rather on the basis of a set of rules that apply to everyone.”