Berlin Cathedral, the German capital's biggest church, is handing out seat passes to members for Christmas Eve services. (Photo: Berliner Dom site)

– Germans who attend church only on high holidays such as Christmas should not be allowed to take pew space from regular church members, two politicians are insisting.

Seating room at the popular Christmas Eve services should be reserved for those who pay church taxes, Thomas Volk of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Martin Lindner of the Free Democrats told the Bild

“I’m in favor of having church services on December 24 open only for people who pay church tax,” said Volk.

“Those who pay church taxes shouldn’t be like idiots locked out of their own churches during important services,” Lindner said. “Congregation members should be allowed to reserve seats ahead of non-members.”

Protestant and Catholic Church budgets in Germany are largely covered by taxes paid by all members of the respective churches, deducted automatically by the state. The right of recognized churches to tax members is enshrined in the constitution. Germans may opt out, but to do so they must also officially relinquish their membership.

As is the case elsewhere in Western Europe, church attendance in Germany is in decline. A Berlin newspaper, Tagesspiegel, reports that an average of just 17,000 people attend Protestant churches in the capital on most Sundays, while Christmas Eve 2007 saw almost 250,000 flock to services. Some 3.4 million people live within
the Berlin city limits.

Past years have seen reported incidents of scuffling, as people elbow their way to seats before churches fill up.

After incidents at the Berlin Cathedral in 2006, the Protestant church – the city’s biggest – introduced a system of handing out free passes to members, guaranteeing them one of the approximately 1,650 seats.

This week’s proposal brought a sharp retort from church leaders, the Protestant Press Service reported.

The suggestion that only church tax payers be allowed to attend Christmas services was nonsense, said Ulrich Fischer, bishop of an evangelical Protestant church in Baden.

He noted that, according to the biblical account, the angels who brought news of Jesus’ birth to shepherds and encouraged them to visit the newborn messiah did not ask whether they had paid their temple tax.

Some commentators wondered how the suggestion would be enforced – whether aspiring church attendees would be expected to show their tax returns at the door.

The Deutsche Welle broadcaster remarked that Volk and Lindner seem “to have completely lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas.”

“The politicians may want to apply their market-oriented theories where they really belong, and look for a solution to overcrowded shopping malls instead,” it said.
newspaper on Tuesday.