SHAFAQNA – Under a grey sky and covered in snow, this barren plot of land in the heart of the city looks even more unassuming than usual.
Only a few people know that here, on a sliver of land made into an island by the flow of the river Spree, is where Berlin got its start. And even fewer know that the site has been earmarked for a groundbreaking project: a place where Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship under one roof.
On the southern part of this river island, known as the Fischerinsel, first settlements of what would later become Berlin rose up in the 13th century. But much like the rest of the city, the area has since been marked by Germany’s turbulent past.
An operating church stood on this spot until it was heavily damaged by bombing in the Second World War. In the sixties, the East German communist regime blew up what remained of the structure, turning the site into a car park in an effort to erase religion – and the past.
In 2009, nearly 20 years after Berlin had been reunited, the plot piqued the interest of Gregor Hohberg, a protestant priest whose parish included the Fischerinsel. Mr Hohberg was keen for religion to return to the site, but saw little sense in building another church at a time when declining attendance already leaves existing churches half empty on Sundays.
“We thought that we must create something that is relevant to today’s city, something that points to the future, and resonates with society,” he tellsThe National at his church on the Alexanderplatz, a square in central Berlin.
Like much of Berlin, the Alexanderplatz unites the old and the new. Dignified old buildings like the city hall and Mr Hohberg’s church, the Marienkirche, are framed by communist-era structures and modern shopping centres.
Amid this converging of eras and ideas, Mr Hohberg had an Eureka moment: Why not build a house of worship for Christians, Muslims and Jews?
His idea came to life as the House of One, a building that will house a church, synagogue, and mosque.
Mr Hohberg has since been joined by two partners, Kadir Sanci, an imam, and Andreas Nachama, a rabbi, and building work on the €43.5 million project is expected to begin in late 2017 – once the first €10m has been raised.
Though just €1m has been collected so far, through crowdfunding and a government donation, Mr Hohberg is confident that they will reach their deadline, and designs for the building have already been drawn up.
The vision of local architect firm, Kuehn Malvezzi, the planned building does not draw from the architectural heritages of any of the three faiths but is instead inspired by the German Bauhaus style.
To enter the three separate rooms of worship, visitors to House of One will have to pass through a central domed common room. This is intentional, and all but guarantees that Christians, Muslims and Jews will meet on their way to prayer.
But for all its spirit of interfaith dialogue and cooperation, the House of One is not devised as melting pot.
“We are not toying with the idea of creating a new religion, we are seeking to respect each other and preserve our own faith,” says Mr Sanci.
The imam belongs to the Hizmet movement of US-based Turkish preacher Fetullah Güllen, which has long stressed the need for dialogue between the religions. Despite his background and the modern approach of the House of One project, however, Mr Sanci does not regard himself as a liberal or reformist Muslim. Of the many imams and Muslim clerics he has engaged with, only one has criticised the project as haram, or incompatible with Islam, he says.
Nevertheless, not everyone in Germany’s Muslim community is convinced by the project, and it took Mr Hohberg almost two years to find a Muslim representative willing to get on board. The concept is not to everyone’s taste, including the requirement that the mosque be open to Sunnis and Shiites. The church and synagogue are also open to all denominations of Christianity and Judaism respectively.
A monument to religious tolerance at a time when rising extremism threatens to divide communities, the House of One is also deeply symbolic in the context of Germany’s past and present.
Not only will it encompass a synagogue at the very core of the city where the Holocaust was conceived and planned, but it will be built on the site of the Petrikirche church whose wartime priest was known for his strong Nazi leanings – Mr Hohberg scathingly refers to him as “the Nazi priest”. The mosque, meanwhile, will represent Germany’s Muslim population, which has grown at an unprecedented rate over the past year with the arrival of more than one million refugees, mainly from war-torn Iraq and Syria.
With the project, “we will pass through the darkest rooms of our history, which we don’t want to hide but engage with, but we will also pass through the rooms full of promise,” says Mr Hohberg.
“We have witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall, now we want to see the walls that exist between the religions fall.”
Mr Sanci agrees. “Once you have established a relationship, then you can’t build up any hostility any more,” he says.