As the Paris attacks and anti-Islam Pegida marches in Germany have spread division and fear among followers of different faiths in Europe, a revolutionary project in Switzerland is uniting eight religions.
The Haus der Religionen (House of Religions) in Bern houses a Christian church, Hindu temple, Buddhist centre, Alevi cemevi and soon, a mosque.
The five private religious spaces open into a shared “dialogue room” where members of different faiths eat, meet and hold events for the community.
Baha'i, Jewish and Sikh representatives are also part of the Haus, which started as a small group’s dream a decade ago and opened in a purpose-built building in December.
While there are other multi-faith centres around the world, the Haus der Religionen is ground-breaking in its scale – five purpose-built homes for five religions. The decorators for the Hindu temple were flown in from India.
If numbers are anything to go by, it is already a resounding success.
An estimated 10,000 people turned up on its opening day and tours are fully booked until the end of April.
Guido Albisetti, president of the foundation behind the Haus, told The Independent its founders had been “overwhelmed” by the support.
“People were queuing outside in the snow for 45 minutes to get in in the freezing weather – we were overflowing,” he added.
The reception was not always so positive. Before the building was constructed in October, vandals broke into the Muslim association planning their new mosque in the Haus, destroyed plans and defaced a picture of the Imam.
Mr Albisetti, 62, said the Muslim community in Bern was the only one out of the eight religions to meet internal opposition to involvement with the Haus der Religionen.
“Our imam is very liberal and very strong-minded,” he added. “More conservative groups had a problem with him.”
But that did not stop the Bern Muslim Association’s involvement with the project and their mosque is due to open in March.
The imam, Mustafa Memeti, has just been named Swiss of the Year by the newspaper SonntagsZeitung for “his courage and his engagement in the most explosive debate of our time”.
Also the head of the Albanian Islamic Association of Switzerland, he is known for his vocal support for integration and emphasises that Muslims can be Swiss citizens without losing their identity or religion.
Mr Albisetti, who said he believes in god but does not attend a particular church, said Mr Memeti’s stance has become even more vital after the Paris attacks.
“He’s trying to find a way that Muslims and all other Swiss religious people live together in a peaceful way.”
In the wake of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the Haus issued a joint statement simply titled “je suis Charlie”, calling for “compassion and dialogue” to overpower hatred and fear.
“When Anders Breivik massacred 77 young people to ‘save the Christian West’ in Norway, no one blamed the whole of Christianity for it, along with their churches and followers in Switzerland,” it said.
“But now, Muslims in our country have to justify themselves after the Paris attacks because some people suspect they are involved.”
But the Haus is fostering acceptance and interaction, hosting visits by schools and groups from all over Switzerland and beyond as well as regular language classes and events.
Bern is a diverse place – more than a third of the city’s population are foreign-born, mostly European workers, and although most residents belong to the Swiss Reformed Church, there are thousands of Muslims, Hindus and people of numerous other faiths.
At the opening of the Haus, a Jewish representative read an extract from the Torah before giving the stage to a Muslim who read from the Koran.
Mr Albisetti said the scene was a far cry from what he had seen in Jerusalem, where Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places are crowded together but deeply divided – “the example of what we don’t want”.
“We’re trying to explain to everyone that we accept all religions here as long as it’s peaceful,” he added.
“Anyone is welcome in this country as long as they accept everyone else.”
Many of those involved in the Haus have been working together for years, moving from place to place until the dream of having their own premises was made a reality with 15 million Swiss Francs (£10.6 million) of funding.
It is housed in a much larger building containing flats, shops and restaurants in a large square.
“The idea was to put this in the middle of life – not stand it alone like St Peter’s in Rome,” Mr Albisetti said. “The religions have to life in life.”
The 62-year-old still works as a private banker and after years working towards the Haus der Religionen, will be joining its other directors to hand it over to another generation next year.
“We are very fortunate in life. We have good jobs, we have the chance to live in the country where we were born and we just wanted to give something to those people who are not so lucky,” he said.
“It’s what we dreamed of - we don’t know if it will work for the next 200 years but at the moment everyone works together.”
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