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North German port becomes ‘arena’ for neo-Nazi violence

September 28, 1997

LUEBECK, Germany (AP) _ Crayon drawings of an arson fire at St. Vicelin’s Church convey children’s impressions of the neo-Nazi violence that gutted their parish church in late May. The flames are yellow, the swastikas silver, and the people are crying.

``I’m very sorry there was an arson and I prayed to God that something like that doesn’t happen again,″ 7-year-old Hennig Konerin wrote on his.

But it did.

A month later, on June 25, swastikas were sprayed on the door of St. Jacobi Church. The following week, a fire and swastikas at St. Augustine’s. Then more vandalism, at the office of leftist author Guenter Grass. In two incidents in mid-September, a swastika was sprayed on the kindergarten playground outside St. Juergen’s Church and swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans were painted on a high school.

The spree has added to Luebeck’s image as a hotbed of neo-Nazi terror, a reputation that dates to 1994 when neo-Nazis set a synagogue ablaze _ the first such attack in Germany since World War II.

Since then, a second arson at the synagogue in 1995 and a fire at a refugee home that killed 10 people last year have kept alive the fear that something is terribly wrong in this historic port city of 215,000 people.

``The picture from outside is that Luebeck is a neo-Nazi nest,″ says Christof Klein of the city’s Alliance Against Racism.

Luebeck is, indeed, something of an arena for neo-Nazis from across Germany who want to draw media attention. While violent neo-Nazi crime was down in most of the nation last year, it increased in Schleswig-Holstein state, which includes Luebeck.

But Klein and others fighting right-wing extremism say the root causes of the violence are not confined to Luebeck, with its shuttered shipyards and high unemployment.

``Luebeck is everywhere in Germany,″ Grass, prize-winning author of ``The Tin Drum″ and a leading spokesman for German liberals, said in a newspaper interview after swastikas were painted on his office in June.

Luebeck, by the same token, can be seen as an example of how Germany copes with neo-Nazi violence.

Activists contend that authorities in Luebeck _ and elsewhere _ are reluctant to pursue neo-Nazi suspects for fear of generating bad publicity.

As evidence, they point to the investigation into the fatal arson fire at a harborside home for asylum-seekers in January 1996, which Klein says ``sent entirely the wrong signal.″

Hours after the blaze, police arrested four neo-Nazis, but they were released shortly after on the strength of the alibis they offered.

Suspicion then fell on a young Lebanese resident of the refugee home. Police cited friction between Middle Eastern and African asylum-seekers living in the house as a motive for the fire, despite the residents’ denials of problems.

Safwan Aid, then 20, was arrested, charged and tried _ only to have the charges dropped 17 months after the blaze when prosecutors admitted they lacked evidence to convict him.

New information has since surfaced casting doubt on the alibis of the original neo-Nazi suspects. But, Klein says, ``there’s a hesitancy among the police and prosecutors to act.″

Klaus-Dieter Schultz, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office in Luebeck, declines to comment on the case, saying it remains under investigation.

So do the arson fires at St. Jacobi, St. Augustine’s and Grass’ office as do several painted warnings that police consider threats to a Lutheran minister active in helping refugees.

A 19-year-old apprentice gardener admitted setting the May 25 fire at St. Vicelin’s, but he later recanted. Charges are still pending against him, Schultz says. Two teen-agers who were with him that night have confessed to having sprayed the swastikas.

Matthias Erz, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, says the city has made every effort to discourage neo-Nazi tendencies, with discussions in schools and street workers visiting youth clubs.

``But obviously there are people who aren’t being reached,″ he says.

Grass theorized that Luebeck became a neo-Nazi focal point as backlash against groups like Klein’s and individuals who speak out against the radical right, such as Lutheran Bishop Karl-Ludwig Kohlwage.

Another Lutheran minister, Guenter Harig, has seen his name painted alongside swastikas with warnings like ``Harig, we’ll get you.″

Whoever sprayed the swastika at the kindergarten playground the night of Sept. 16 also painted Harig’s name followed by a cross _ symbolism used by German newspapers to denote a death.

``We’re taking the matter seriously,″ says Schultz, the prosecutor’s spokesman.

Police believe the threats are related to the decision by Harig’s parish to grant ``church asylum″ to an Algerian family that was about to be deported.

Harig, who says he also has gotten threatening letters, has police protection at his home.

In an interview at his office next to the imposing, 13th century St. Mary’s Church, Harig says he doubts those behind the attacks are true ideological neo-Nazis. More likely, he says, they are frustrated young people lashing out at outsiders as scapegoats for their own lack of prospects.

``The anti-foreigner sentiment has social roots,″ he says.

Harig traces Luebeck’s attraction for right-wingers to the 1994 synagogue fire.

``A taboo was broken,″ he says. ``And we don’t know what that means ... and what happens next.″

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