Berlin’s ground zero mosque

Dan Borden on Berlin’s ever-changing urbanscape: Why is it so difficult for Germany to reconcile the three main religions here? One pastor's contribution to attempted harmony is causing a stir.

Image for Berlin’s ground zero mosque

“Christianity doubtless belongs in Germany. Judaism belongs doubtless in Germany. That is our Judeo-Christian history. But now, Islam also belongs in Germany.” – German Federal President Christian Wulff

Depending on whom you listen to, Islam is either an integral part of German culture or a grave threat to its soul. When President Wulff equated Islam with Christianity and Judaism, the German media erupted in protest.

Now a Berlin pastor has announced plans for a religious center where Christians, Jews and Muslims will worship under one roof, and he wants to construct it on one of the city’s most hallowed sites, Petriplatz. The building would put Wulff ’s words into concrete practice, and it could prove just as controversial.

If you’re searching for the birthplace of this city – Berlin’s Ground Zero – Petriplatz is a good place to start. This barren plot of land near Spittelmarkt doesn’t look like much today, but in 1237 it was home to a Romanesque church dedicated to St. Peter. On October 28 of that year, a priest scribbled his name on a document, marking the first written record of Berlin’s existence and its official birth date.

Over the centuries, as Berlin grew up around it, the St. Peters Church was destroyed and rebuilt three times in ever-grander style. Finally the demolition tag team of Allied bombs and DDR dynamite wiped the church off the map and its congregation moved to the nearby Marienkirche. Bad news for St. Peters was good news for archeologists who’ve been digging through Berlin’s earliest history ever since. In 2007, the city decided to rebuild Petriplatz in a form befitting its historic importance. The plans included flats, offices and a museum showing off the archeological finds – but no church.

Back in the days of Frederick the Great, Berlin was a bastion of religious tolerance, but more recent events have tarnished its reputation. The folks at the Marienkirche saw the Petriplatz plans as a way to make amends. Their bold proposal: a religious center on the site of St. Peters, but housing Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations.

Rev. Gregor Hohberg, pastor of the Marienkirche, points out that the world’s three monotheistic religions have many things in common. Why not share one house of worship? And he makes the case that all three have roots in Berlin going back centuries – the first Muslims settled in Berlin in the 1700s. The Jewish Congregation of Berlin has signed on. Next steps: finding Muslim partners, then a design competition.

In the US, it’s not uncommon for shrinking Christian congregations to share one church building – Presbyterians and Methodists, for instance. And of course there are those sterile non-denominational chapels in airports. But this building would be something different, a provocative step in the evolution of religious buildings. Hohberg envisions a functioning congregational space that evokes the transcendent spirit of three distinct religions.

In the West, Islamophobia seems to be socially acceptable as long as it’s not directed at Muslims but at their buildings – mosques, love ‘em or hate ‘em. Opponents to the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan (the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ is not actually a mosque) claim their issue is location. A new mosque in Berlin-Heinersdorf triggered protests by its neighbors and a neo-Nazi march. Even the laid-back Swiss have banned minarets.

With this proposal, Hohberg steps into a political, as well as theological, minefield. But by emphasizing the commonalities between these three religions and raising Islam to the level of an equal, this building suggests a kind of ‘third way’ to help integrate Islam into the German mainstream.

In a secular culture – about half of Berliners claim no religious affiliation – religious believers of all stripes are increasingly rare. Churches, mosques and synagogues aren’t cheap to build or maintain. There’s power in numbers. If all goes as planned, the Petriplatz religious center could prove that working together is the best way to strengthen all three German religions.