News from Berlin

“People of the Book” will gather under one roof

August 04th, 2014
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News from Berlin - There is a photo by a famous French street artist, JR, of three leaders of different religions: a priest, an imam and a rabbi next to each other, making funny faces at the camera. The picture was displayed as a large poster on the wall separating Palestine and Israel, attracting attention and surprising both tourists and locals. It quickly went viral on the Internet too. On the territory which is once again in the state of war, it’s clear that it was just artistic provocation. However, such a convergence of the three Abrahamic religions has become reality in Berlin, one that most probably could only have happened here.

Petriplatz is a square located in the center of the Mitte district, facing the television tower on Alexanderplatz, one of the most iconic landmarks of Berlin. Now it is just an another construction site, one of the many that Berliners are tired of. However, in earlier days, it was the place where the oldest church in Berlin – Petrikirche – stood and where the city was founded in 1237. It was destroyed during the air raid in 1945 and finally demolished in 1964.

In 2012 Pastor Gregor Hohberg – a leader of the protestant community in Berlin – came up with the idea to build a place of worship on this site for the three religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism, which have coexisted together in Berlin for many years and still do so today. Very quickly his idea was supported by Imam Kadir Sanci – a leader of the Muslim community – and afterwards, by Rabbi Tovia Ben Chorin, from the Liberal Jewish Community. These three religions will find a common space under the one roof, in the religious temple called the House of One. 

“Who is the One? We cannot really tell. It is untranslatable,” said Pastor Hohberg during the conference in Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. The name of the temple will emphasize the unity of “People of the book,” the term for believers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. ”We believe in One, and we are united by the one Holy Book. All the three religions are linked together by tradition and history and co-exist in Berlin. I wanted to create a place to meet, with openness, respect and possibility to create things together,” he added.

According to the pastor and imam, these religions not only have the same religious background, but even a common architectural tradition. That’s why combining three temples in one doesn’t break any religious rule. The main architect of House of One, Wilfried Kuehn, said for BBC News: “It's not necessary for instance for a mosque to have a minaret - it's only a possibility and not a necessity. And a church doesn't need a tower. This is about going back to the origins when these three faiths were close and shared a lot architecturally.” There are several examples, when different faiths were using the same temples in different times, for example the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or the Cathedral in Cordoba.

As Rabbi Ben Chorin claims, House of One could not be created anywhere else. “It is the city of wounds, the city of miracles,” he said about Berlin, referring to the extermination of Jews planned here. “The interfaith miracle is possible, maybe because German people are very open-minded, ready for the dialog. But most importantly, after all the experience, there are no nationalistic feelings.”

In 2012 the architectural competition for the project was launched, which was won by the Kuehn Malvezzi architect group. Looking at the project, it can be easily mistaken for a museum. The structure is very simple and there are no religious symbols on the outside. As the three religious leaders said, it is a necessity, considering the amount of non-believers in Berlin.

“Initially we wanted to make a sign combining the cross, half-crescent and menora, but when we saw it, we didn’t like it,” said the imam. “We decided to keep it simple and neutral. Clearly it will be a religious place, but we also want to attract the atheists.”

The imam and pastor – although they lead communities of different religions whose aim is to convert and find new believers – are very careful when speaking about faith. It seems like they don’t want to bother anyone with ring of the bells or singing of a muezzin. This was expressed by the rabbi, who when speaking with the audience during the conference in the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy spontaneously said “God bless you!” Realizing what he had said, he added: “If it doesn’t offend you.” The correctness and moderation are supposed to encourage atheists to come and gain knowledge. There will be an educational space for them under the roof of House of One too.

And why would the believers choose House of One instead of their well-known churches, synagogues and mosques? “There is a need in the society to start the dialogue,” said Kadir Sanci. “They are interested in the differences, they never had an occasion before to talk with each other. Very often I receive requests from schools and other institutions for the meetings, they want to integrate.

Although the House of One idea sounds like a fantastic project, it quickly gained a lot of criticism. Imam Sanci admitted that he had received a lot of negative comments via social media putting forward the idea that Muslims should not cooperate with other religions. They quoted certain excerpts from the Koran, which the imam contradicted using other Sures. It just proves the point, that even in such tolerant city like Berlin, there is a lot to work on. “The lack of education is a source of the conflicts,” said imam. “The ignorance, poverty, no sources of knowledge. The so-called “religious wars” are only borne of political issues, religion is just an excuse, not the source of fight.”

The project received very positive reactions from the authorities of the city. Currently the main goal is to gain financing, because the three initiators want to finance it entirely by crowdfunding. Anyone can donate money (10 euros) and also find more information on the official website of the project: www.house-of-one.org.

Małgorzata Głouszek

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