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After Berlin Market Attack, Nearby Churchgoers Look For Compassion


And this holiday weekend, clergy in a Berlin church are struggling with their Christmas message this year. The church is just behind the market where a terrorist attack took place last week, and people have been filing in to light candles and sign a condolence book ever since. As Joanna Kakissis reports, pastors are searching for a way to talk about compassion in a time of fear.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Just before his Christmas sermon, a sandy-haired vicar named Thomas Franken stands near the entrance to Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, pointing to a damaged spire.

THOMAS FRANKEN: The tower that you can see over is part of the remaining old church which crashed down in the war.

KAKISSIS: The original 19th-century church was bombed during World War II. A new church was built around what remained. The old with the new symbolizes reconciliation. It's the way Franken tries to live his life.

FRANKEN: I mean 60 years ago, people did forgive my grandfather who was really a terrible Nazi. So I think it's my thing to forgive others now.

KAKISSIS: But he says it's hard for many people to forgive or even understand Anis Amri, the Tunisian man who pledged allegiance to ISIS and allegedly drove a tractor-trailer into the neighboring Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring at least 45.

FRANKEN: Up to now, death was far away. War was far away. And now death has come closer. And that makes them, of course, be afraid. But the Christian message is don't be afraid. Christ is here to save us.


KAKISSIS: As an organist begins to play, Hiltrud Trebben, a retired secretary, takes a seat in a back pew. She says she and her husband cannot stop thinking about the night of the attack.

HILTRUD TREBBEN: (Through interpreter) We were in Dusseldorf at a tango class when we heard the news. The class broke up, and we ran to the phone to call our daughter who's here in Berlin. We kept asking her - where are you? Are you home yet? We kept asking ourselves, is the criminal on the streets? Is he on the train? Will something else happen?

KAKISSIS: Yet she resents nationalists taking advantage of the tragedy to incite hate against refugees.

TREBBEN: (Speaking German).

KAKISSIS: "I came here today," she says, "so someone could give me a sign of hope for the future."


KAKISSIS: Trebben sings along to a hymn about standing beside the manger of baby Jesus. There are many families with young children in the congregation. There was supposed to be a nativity play for them, but it was canceled. So Vicar Thomas Franken adds a puppet, a happy, green dragon named Bartholomew, to the sermon just for the kids.

FRANKEN: (As Bartholomew, speaking German).

KAKISSIS: The puppet asks, "didn't we just sing a song about a star rising and that those who were sad and who have cried - that they don't have to cry anymore?" But this year, it's not as simple as just celebrating the birth of Jesus, says Franken and the church's lead pastor, Martin Germer.

MARTIN GERMER: (Through interpreter) The most important thing is to stand with people during their grief, to listen to them and to say - you can tell me what you're worried about right now.

KAKISSIS: They worry about more attacks and how, amid the fear, they can remain compassionate toward newcomers.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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