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A cycle of crackdowns in East Germany - with a new twist

How does a semi-police state liberalize? As East Germany is finding out for the third time in four months, the answer isn't easy. It has been letting more of its citizens emigrate and travel abroad in the past two years - but this is only whetting the appetites of thousands of others to escape the country.

And when the authorities then resort to police methods to dampen expectations, the loss in prestige abroad makes them pull back. This turns the secret police at home from a dreaded instrument into a laughingstock.

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The latest attempt to return to police methods began over the weekend - with one new twist. As usual, there were arrests of up to 70 would-be 'emigr'es (including some who had already received permission to leave) and lengthy ``hearings'' in police stations of dozens of others who are being refused exit visas.

But in addition - for the first time since the Stalinist era - authorities hindered access to church services Sunday by ostentatiously checking the identity of everyone, including regular members, entering the Sophia Protestant Church in East Berlin.

The intent was to stifle any kind of group activity among the estimated several hundred thousand who want to emigrate but are denied permission to do so.

Some reportedly had planned to imitate the actions of those who tried to carry their own banners for freedom in an official Communist march in January (and set off the last previous attempt at a police crackdown).

Those who were taken to police stations for compulsory discussions told church contacts they were warned not to congregate, not even in church services. They were reportedly also told not to make trouble - that is, not to give information to the West German reporters who have been so effective in publicizing all the sparring.

Ironically, the effect of such half-hearted police measures is just the opposite of the intended pacification. If the pattern of January and last November is followed, those arrested can be expected to be expelled to West Germany within a few days.

Sunday's hindrance of church services induces pastors, who might otherwise shun political activism, to use the pulpit to denounce state interference with the freedom of religion guaranteed in East German law. This happened at the Sophia church.

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There was every expectation this would be a major theme at what was originally supposed to be the last special ``intercessionary'' church service for those arrested in January at the Gethsemane Church in East Berlin Monday night. And there was every expectation that the Gethsemane service would in fact turn out to be the first of new special church services on behalf of the new arrestees.

With every repetition, the interval between the cycles of aborted repression is getting shorter.

In November the security forces were humiliated - as West German officials and journalists analyze it - when they arrested Christian environmentalists, then had to release them after vigils were conducted in the Protestant Church. After two months the police struck back - again as the West Germans analyze it - to expel would-be 'emigr'es who tried to join an official communist march with slogans extolling freedom, and to arrest stay-at-home reformers and indict them for treason. Politicians intervened, and the disgruntled reformers ended up in West Germany.

This time it took barely over a month before the cycle resumed.

Ironically, the latest round, with its particular provocation of the Protestant Church came only days after East German party and state chief Erich Honecker held a relatively friendly meeting with the head of the East German Protestant Church, Bishop Werner Leich.

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