It is thought to be a one-of-a-kind: tucked away in a multicultural, working-class suburb of Bern stands a house with five sanctuaries, one per religion. The House of Religions is a place for coexistence and interaction.
With the tip of his spatula, an artist perfects the round of the shoulder of Ganesh. The small god with the elephant head is seated on the knee of Shiva, one of the great Hindu deities.
At the foot of the construction, another artist prepares mortar, the noise of his mixing machine drowning out the voice of a Tamil singer coming through the PA system. Further away, some altars are already decorated in bright colours, but the gopura, the large tower that marks the entrance to the temple, is still the monotone grey of concrete.
The artists have come from Tamil Nadu especially to complete this work.
“It was quite difficult to get visas for them. At each stage of the process we were being made to start the paperwork all over again,” says Sasikumar Tharmalinguam, the Hindu priest who will officiate at the House of Religions.
“Difficult is putting it lightly,” says Brigitta Rotach, cultural director of the organisation.
Today, however, the two are in a more relaxed mood. The culmination of an idea born nearly 15 years ago, the House of Religions will finally open to the public on December 14. Now it is time to forget the administrative hassles, have a party and meet new people.
In the early 2000s, Rotach, a theologian of Jewish origin from Zurich, was the presenter of a German-language television show called “Sternstunde” (great moment). It was there that she met Hartmut Haas, a Moravian pastor (a branch of Protestantism) who today manages the association House of Religions – A Dialogue of Cultures.
“He had spent several years in Palestine. It was just after September 11, 2001, when everyone was talking about the clash of civilisations,” Rotach recalls. “He came with an imam and a rabbi and the three brought up this utopia of a place where the religions would coexist and understand each other.”
At the time, the fathers of the idea were well aware that such a place would not miraculously rise from the earth. But Haas was in no mood to wait for a building and started the association in his kitchen before finding a space in town.
He called it the House of Religions and the communities started a restaurant, organised various activities such as language and integration courses, yoga and so on. The institution then moved into wooden huts, where the Hindus had a small temple and the Buddhists, the Alevis (derived from Shiite Islam) and the Moravians gathered to pray and meditate.
It was a far cry from the new lodgings at Europaplatz. Here in a modern complex that also houses apartments and a shopping centre, the religions have a real foothold in the street.
The section attributed to them has a large common room and a series of smaller rooms upstairs which will be used for joint activities. Surrounding these spaces over two levels are the places of worship for each of the five religions: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Alevi.
Why these religions and not others? This is where the local aspect of the project comes in, because if the House of Religions holds a potentially universally symbolic value, it is also very much anchored in the reality of life in Bern.
“We didn’t rank the religions and select them in terms of which would be the best fit. In fact, those that have a place of prayer in the House are those that needed it,” explains Rotach. “Here in the western suburbs of Bern, there are a lot of immigrants and quite a few religions which have their places of worship in backyards, or industrial halls or basements.”
That’s not to say the other religions are indifferent to the House. Those which did not need a place of worship are represented in the window and displays in the common areas, as is the case for the Jews, the Sikhs and the Baha’is.
Capital of tolerance?
If everyone agrees on the role played by Haas and the Moravian community in driving the project in Bern, Catholic theologian Toni Hodel believes such a project could also have come about elsewhere.
“But here, for a long time we have already been in the habit of dialogue and exchange, in temporary places that came before the House of Religions,” he says.
“It was the destiny and the will of God that the progressive elements of the different religious communities worked together in a constructive and exemplary way to make this unique project a reality,” says Albanian imam Mustafa Memeti.
It is a project that must of course foster appreciation and dialogue and “make a sustainable contribution to peace and mutual understanding”, says Ralph Friedländer, president of the Jewish community in Bern.
For body and soul
“We are well aware that we are not going to save the world,” says Rotach. “But the House will have achieved its objective if it can at least contribute something to Bern. When someone is afraid of another religion, it can be enough for the person to meet people of that religion to wipe away the prejudice.”
Meetings between the religions often happen around a meal, with the ground floor of the main part of the House being essentially a restaurant. Tharmalinguam is in charge of the cooking, offering an Ayurvedic menu “100% vegetarian, which prolongs your life”. Some of the vegetables come directly from the House’s own vegetable garden, women come to bake cakes for the afternoons and weekends, and the restaurant serves an international brunch.
Once passed through the doors from the communal areas, each religion makes a point of conserving its differences.
“We encourage a dialogue, not a merger,” explains Rotach. “It’s not about saying that we are all the same and reducing the religions to the smallest common denominator. I remember, during some debates, seeing young believers vehemently espouse their truth and admit to it being difficult to see that others could also have a different truth. Here, I’m sure I will lead discussions of this type, and all the better if there are people in the public who come to vigorously defend their faith.”
As for those for whom faith is unclear or nonexistent – who are more numerous than ever in Switzerland – they too will find something at the House of Religions, if only at the level of meeting and exchange.
“The restaurant, yoga and films will attract people. They can appreciate eating Ayurvedic food without being convinced about what it is,” says Rotach. “We must also offer something to people who are not totally passionate about the questions of truth.”
‘The Bern Miracle’
“This project is completely useless and will fail with a probability bordering on certainty,” was the response, in the early 2000s, of one of the first officials to whom the fathers of the House of Religions presented their idea.
And in truth, the funds needed to build it were not easy to find. Each of the communities present built their place of worship at their own cost, but the building and communal services also cost some CHF10 million ($10.3 million). Some 150 foundations, institutions and businesses were asked to contribute.
In the end, most came from the Rudolf and Ursula Streit foundation (CHF2.75 million), the Bern cantonal lottery (CHF2.2 million), the Bern Civic Community (CHF900,000) and various donations (CHF2 million). The two official churches (Catholic and Reform) also each gave interest-free loans of CHF1 million.
(Translated from French by Sophie Douez), swissinfo.ch