By Marc-André Miserez swissinfo.ch
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 a hotel, offices, 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.