Tree protest hampers nuncio's second coming

The Catholic Church in Germany is moving back to Berlin. But its new neighbours are not happy

The Pope's representative in Germany has never been very keen on the move to Berlin. In Bonn, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo enjoys the comforts of a splendid villa, secluded behind high walls a stone's throw from the Rhine, overlooking Catholics as far as the eye can see. The Berlin panorama will offer sex shops and tower blocks teeming with immigrants, atheists and worse: millions of Lutherans.

But move he must, because Berlin has been ordained as the new capital, to which all roads will lead by 1999. Like Britain, France and the US, the Vatican must find suitable accommodation for its emissary, but that task is proving harder than anticipated. The pre-war nunciature was bombed down, the site sold and the proceeds pocketed by the Berlin flock. It was understood then that Berlin's Catholics would pick a suitable site and build the new residence if the nuncio were ever to return.

True to their words, the Berliners have found the land. It is an overgrown meadow adjacent to St John's basilica in Kreuzberg, a district famous for its kebabs, off-beat art scene and the ready availability of cannabis. The papal nuncio will not comment on the choice, but the Berlin Church maintains that the immigrant neighbourhood will be the perfect home for the ambassador of the Holy See, because 20 per cent of the city's Catholics are foreigners.

The locals, however, beg to disagree. Invoking the wrath of German law, a group of residents have launched a petition to stop the building work. They fear for the "charming character" of their district, worry about disruption to their peaceful lives, and are convinced that the new walls will even change the direction of the wind down their beloved Lilienthalstrasse. The meadow is for public use at the moment, they point out, and they will not be able to amble down its paths when the Archbishop arrives with his entourage of security guards.

But worst of all, they are deeply concerned about the environment. Trees will be felled, they say, wiping out an entire ecosystem of "valuable insects, spiders and bats, and the birds that feed on them".

"Only one tree will be chopped out," retorts Roland Steinke, the vicar- general supervising the project. The residents, he adds, will still have access to part of the woods, and the building will not be as intrusive as the locals fear. "It will be in Berlin style, and we will start building it next year." And God's little creatures? "They can stay, too, as long as they leave our flowers alone."

But his assurances are falling on deaf ears. The locals have launched a "civic initiative" against the new building, and hired a top Berlin lawyer to lead the crusade. The law is in their favour: if the protesters can gather enough signatures, the local council is obliged to hold a public inquiry. That may not be enough to scupper the project, but it would ensure that the nuncio's second coming to Berlin is delayed.

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