February 1, 2014

​Interfaith Prayer Building may Rise From Berlin Ruins

©2014 Religion News Service

At a church near Berlin’s bustling
Alexanderplatz, an evangelical pastor, a rabbi and an imam have conducted
interfaith services on special occasions for the past two years. Now they plan
to build a multi-faith prayer building.

Billed as a landmark Jewish-Muslim-Christian
prayer space, the building will combine a church, a synagogue and a mosque
under one roof, next to one of Berlin’s busiest streets. Its organizers hope to
make the German capital a meeting ground of world cultures and international

“Berlin is a multi-faceted city,” said Kandir
Sanci, the imam of the House of Prayer and Learning, the association behind the
project. “You find many people of all kinds of religions. I feel that the city
is very engaged to support the various religions and make them feel at home.”

In a few months, the House of Prayer and Learning
will launch a crowdsourcing campaign with a goal of raising an estimated 30
million euro, about $40 million.

Anna Poeschel, spokeswoman for the Evangelical
Church Association of St. Peter’s-St. Mary’s, one of the project’s partners,
said the campaign is scheduled to start in May.

Architectural plans are already in place.
Architect Wilfried Kuehn was awarded the prize in a design competition two
years ago.

“The main focus for us was each of the religions
have their own space and are not fused into one,” he said.

Kuehn’s winning design includes no church towers
or minarets. There are three separate religious spaces joined by one central
hall, which the architect suggests could function as the democratic heart of a

“We didn’t want to load any symbolism on the
building,” said Kuehn. “From the outside it’s very pure and simple, almost
archaic looking.”

Birgit Meyer, professor of religious studies at
Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said what is most compelling about the
project is the neutral secular space in the middle, which she sees as a basis
for the mutual acceptance.

“Obviously, this is a modern, programmatic vision
about religion in the 21st century,” said Meyer. “Clearly, not all religious
groups in the spectrum of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in Berlin would
endorse this view, and wish to be part of the project.”

The Rev. Gregor Hohberg, minister at the
Evangelical Church Association of St. Peter’s-St. Mary’s, initiated the project
along with the Jewish Community of Berlin, the Abraham Geiger College of
Potsdam, and the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue.

The location of the new prayer building is
planned for Petriplatz on the ruins of the 13th-century St. Peter’s Church —
property that is owned by the Evangelical Church Association of St. Peter’s-St.

During World War II, St. Peter’s Church was
damaged beyond repair and eventually demolished by the East German government.
For decades Petriplatz lay as a desolate parking lot, until 2007 when
archeological excavations revealed the submerged remains of Coelln, the sister
town of Old Berlin and one of five cities united in 1709 by Frederick I of
Prussia to serve as a capital city.

Today Petriplatz is little more than a stretch of
fenced-in shrubs, but Hohberg said the group has been given a unique opportunity
to breathe new life into the city’s medieval origins.

Some have criticized the site of the new prayer
space. During the war, St. Peter’s Church hosted one of the most radical Nazi
pastors in Berlin.

While serving as an army chaplain, Walter Hoff
led hundreds of Eastern European Jews to their deaths. Critics say the House of
Prayer and Learning is not doing enough to remember the site’s significant role
in the Holocaust.

“How can there be a dialogue of honestly amongst
these three religions when the one religion who is hosting isn’t being honest
about its own past?” asked Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish Studies at
Dartmouth College and a scholar of Christian and Jewish relations in Germany
during the 19th and 20th centuries.