Pastor's suicide a cry against Islam?

Weisselberg said Christians in Europe must unite or risk being overrun by Islam.

church 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
church 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
We know this much: The 73-year-old pastor's last sermon focused on his fear that Christian Europe would be overwhelmed by Islam. A few weeks later, at an important Lutheran landmark, the Rev. Roland Weisselberg soaked himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze. He left no suicide note, and the meaning of his final words is still the subject of conjecture But in a time when Christians and Muslims in Europe lurch from one crisis to the next, the poetry-quoting, retired Lutheran minister is being proclaimed a self-martyr - the latest victim in a growing conflict between the cross and the crescent. "What's sad is that many people are so quick to believe that he killed himself to protest Islam. They want to believe it," said Bishop Christoph Kaehler, who leads the German Protestant Church in eastern Thuringia state, which includes historic Erfurt, where the 16th-century Reformation trailblazer Martin Luther took his first religious vows. "Weisselberg has become a magnet for fears and suspicions about Muslims," Kaehler said. "It's an unfortunate lesson in how tense things have become." Germany has felt that uneasiness in many ways recently. Pope Benedict XVI used the occasion of a speech in September to decry violent trends in Islam, setting off protests around the world. The German pontiff is scheduled to begin a visit to Turkey on Nov. 28 in his first papal trip to a mostly Muslim nation. Weisselberg was not a silent bystander. He wrote letters to newspapers, venting on a range of topics. Most were packaged around his belief that European Christians had become too meek and separated from the faith's bold history - such as Luther's famous call for spiritual renewal, which helped stir the Protestant Reformation. Weisselberg's writings and conversations also were peppered with literary references, especially to the 19th-century German poets Heinrich Heine and Friedrich Holderlin, whose works were influenced by the conquests of Napoleon. In his last sermon in late September - called from retirement to fill in for an absent minister - Weisselberg said Christians in Europe must unite or risk being overrun by Islam in generations to come. Police say Weisselberg cut through a gap between a hedgerow and a metal fence circling a construction pit for a new library - on a site where more than 250 people died during Allied air strikes near the end of World War II. Weisselberg pulled out a canister of gasoline hidden under his coat. An instant later, he was ablaze. Witnesses told authorities he cried two words: "Jesus" and "Oskar" - considered a reference to the Rev. Oskar Bruesewitz, who set himself on fire in 1976 as an apparent protest against the communist East German regime. Weisselberg died the following day. No formal suicide note was found. But his widow - who has refused to speak publicly - told a church official that her husband left behind a letter describing his angst over Islam's rising power in Europe. Within hours, Weisselberg's story was being told and retold as an act of self-martyrdom. Anti-Muslim groups across Europe have exalted his name. Christian Web sites have given him top billing - in a repeat of the global cyber-eulogies for an Italian missionary, Sister Leonella Sgorbati, who was gunned down in Somalia in September in possible retaliation to the pope's comments on Islam. "In the absence of any clear reason, people will form their own judgments," said Lothar Schmeltz, curator of the St. Augustine Monastery. "In this case - and in these times - it's easy to see this as one man's lonely fight against Islam." In the monastery's main church, tributes to Weisselberg have been left on a small wooden table near towering stained glass windows. Amid the wilting flowers and votive candles is a wreath with a message on a yellow ribbon: "We hope this act bears fruit."