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Pastor's fiery protest mystifies many

The German wasn't known as a fanatic, yet he killed himself after complaining of Islam's growing influence.

December 28, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

ERFURT, GERMANY — The church was full so he did it outside, just after communion. Had a can of gasoline under his coat, drenched himself and went alight. The janitor saw a flash and yelled for help. The flaming man stumbled to the ground as worshipers rushed past and a nun knelt beside him, praying and touching a sliver of his unburned skin.

Someone said he whispered, "Is Jesus here?"

The Rev. Roland Weisselberg died the next day. His widow said the 73-year-old retired Lutheran minister committed suicide to protest Islam's growing influence on a Christian continent that had lost its faith.

That's all the bloggers and neo-Nazis needed. Screeds whirled and a troubled man was turned into a martyr, candles lighted in his honor, flowers dropped on the place where he fell.

"The motive of minister Weisselberg to burn himself to death shows the failure of multicultural policy," proclaimed the website for Die Republikaner, an extreme right-wing organization. "There is no place for the Islamic faith in Germany."

Terrorism and strains from integrating a growing Muslim population have transformed Europe into a cultural battleground. Weisselberg, a slight, fidgety man with a penchant for quoting poetry, fretted that Christians had forgotten God while Muslims were increasingly devoted. But his act on that final day of October, more riddle than signpost, has left friends and colleagues mystified over its interpretation.

"I feel as though we are digging in the fog," said Elfriede Begrich, provost at the medieval St. Augustine Monastery, where the pastor poured gasoline over his body. "He'd never been a fanatic. He could get on your nerves at times, but he wasn't a fanatic. We need to be careful. We don't want to be blackmailed by him from the grave, 'Now, you have to deal with Islam.' "

The Rev. Uwe Edom, who inherited Weisselberg's suburban church when the older minister retired in 1989, said, "I don't think he wanted confrontation with Islam. He just wanted Christians to live their faith more clearly.... But it is absolutely apparent that we have to deal with Islam in some way -- just look at the news each day."

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Special day

Weisselberg chose with care the day he would act: the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the day in the 16th century when Martin Luther nailed his treatise to a church door and broke with Roman Catholicism. Luther studied and took his vows at St. Augustine's, and for many the monastery, with its black tower and arched gate, epitomized God's designs for this city of spires and bells in deep Thuringia.

Other echoes from the past were heard that day. As his clothes smoldered, Weisselberg called out "Jesus" and then "Oskar." The name is believed to be a reference to the Rev. Oskar Bruesewitz, a German vicar whose self-immolation in 1976 was a protest against East German communist oppression. But few knew what "Oskar" meant when the ambulance carried Weisselberg away, his lungs singed, more than 60% of his body burned.

It's not an image you think of walking the tight lanes of Windischholzhausen, a village turned into a suburb at the edge of Erfurt. Weisselberg lived in a two-story A-frame with a pine tree out front and a wall laced with ivy. Around the bend, past the sounds of workmen and children, St. Michael's, where Weisselberg was pastor for 25 years, rises over an orchard.

The church is small, with white lattice windows and a gray-shale steeple. The single tombstone in the graveyard has a mystery: Pvt. Heinrich Pfeiffer, born 1802, died 18--. The last two numbers have faded. Across the street, the glass-encased community bulletin board notes that the library bus comes on Friday. There's also a sticker, not put up by village elders, but one that also has not been removed, that reads: "No to the Islamization of Europe. Germany for the Germans."

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A lot to say

Weisselberg did not want to resign as pastor, but a heart problem forced his retirement. A prattler who quoted verse from poets such as Rilke, the pastor began appearing at church and town meetings with a lot to say. Colleagues said he became consumed with Islam after Sept. 11, 2001. He wanted it as a topic at a retired ministers convention and mentioned it in his frequent letters to newspapers.

He seemed a man with too much time on his hands, bristling for ideological debate. People say he relished having the last word. Two pastors recalled that when Weisselberg presided at funerals, he made sure he was the last one standing over the grave, as if his prayers had a special ticket to heaven. He was whispered to more than once not to interfere when Edom replaced him at St. Michael's; the older minister reluctantly receded so the younger could find his voice.

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