Interreligious German-Georgian youth exchange
The peaceful coexistence of the religions is again at the centre of this year's youth exchange with Georgia. Meeting people of different faiths and cultures, exchanging ideas, building friendships and relationships across borders - this is a basic idea of the House of One, which is also followed by our youth exchange. Last year young Germans visited our partners from the Peace Academy in Tblissi, this year ten young Muslims, Orthodox and Baptists came to Berlin for a return visit. A week of full program awaits.
With the following diary notes we take you with our visitors through an exciting week in Berlin.
Saturday, October 19:
8:10 a.m., Tegel Airport in Berlin: The time has come. The group of young Georgians and their support team from Tblissi arrive. Great reunion joy. Most of them already know each other from the earlier year's visit in Tblissi. Now a week with a full programme is awaiting them, days in which they will explore interreligious life in Berlin. Also on the agenda is the joint development of the "Young House of One Charta", a charter that focuses on the needs of young people in the House of One. But first the participants check in their quarters before going for a walk in the city.
12 noon, meeting point Marienkirche: The Gothic bishop's church on Alexanderplatz with its baroque Wagner organ from 1723 and the extensive collection of paintings is the starting point of the walk. Further destinations are the memorial in Rosenstraße, which commemorates the one-week protest of Christian women against the arrest of their Jewish men in 1943, and the Old Jewish Cemetery in Große Hamburger Straße, the oldest occupied burial ground of the Jewish Community in Berlin. Visitors are amazed at the cleanliness of the city and the pace of life in Berlin. Tblissi is so different.
Sunday, 20 October:
10:30 a.m., Marienkirche: The participants take part in the service in the Marienkirche. Pastor Eric Haussmann welcomes the guests in the congregation. After the divine service the visitors get to know a part of the social commitment of the St.Petri-St.Mariengemeinde by visiting the soup kitchen. One participant already knows a place like that in the Georgian town of Gori - by the way Stalin's birthplace - organised by the local Baptist congregation. Since the Caucasus war between Georgia and Russia in 2008, around 50 people have been regularly cared for in this way.
The next stop is Bernauerstrasse, where the tragic history of the division of Berlin and Germany is at stake. The Georgian guests are impressed by the memorial and how the past is kept visible in today's cityscape. They would also like to see a similar approach in their own country, which has to struggle with corruption and economic hardship. The often difficult history ist not represented in the cities, only the glorious moments are remembered.
Monday, October 21st:
9 am, rooms of the House of One Foundation: Work begins. The theme is the architecture of the Three-Religious House. In the coming days, the group will deal with various sacred spaces, work out and discuss differences and qualities. What would be conceivable for the House of One? We are curious.
1 p.m., Bundestag: One of the aims of the visit is the devotion room in the Reichstag building. The artist Günther Uecker conceived the space interdenominationally. In the centre is a simple rectangular altar made of sandblasted granite. An edge in the floor indicates where the East is and thus the direction to Jerusalem and Mecca. Liturgical objects from various religions are displayed in a showcase. Unexpectedly, other traces can also be found in the building. Our visitors discover Georgian names carved into the walls in 1945 when the Red Army took Berlin. The transparency and openness of the Bundestag creates a longing in the group for a similar understanding of civic politics in Georgia. Time and again, visitors express their concerns about Georgia's future and about life in their own country.
3 p.m., Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church: Another sacred room on a voyage of discovery through multi-religious Berlin. The monument is also a place where Berlin's wounds are kept visible. The tower ruin is an impressive memorial to the horrors of war.
7.30 p.m., Sukkat Schalom Synagogue: On this evening the Jewish community celebrates Simchat Tora, the festival of Torah joy, when the old Torah year ends and the new one begins. A good reason to celebrate happily. Together with cantor Esther Hirsch, the Georgian visitors have previously explored the essence of Jewish worship. Even though not all Torah rolls are carried seven times through the synagogue on every Shabbat, the reading of Scripture is part of the weekly divine service. Also in the other monotheistic religions reading the respective scriptures and reciting prayers and verses together belong to it. "So much is tradition and not religion," says Süleyman Bag of the House of One, "our clothing, melodies and food show which region we come from." So Judaism and Christianity have in common the sanctification of wine and bread, the action itself, but the meaning is different for Christians. By visiting the synagogue, everyone was able to participate in this happy holiday and experience the Kiddush, the blessing of wine in Jewish tradition. Most of the participants of the German-Georgian group experience the festival for the first time. According to optimistic estimates, only about 10,000 Jews still live in Georgia.
Tuesday, October 22nd:
In the morning we meet for coffee and croissants in the foundation's rooms in the Friedrichsgracht. The young people talk enthusiastically about their impressions in the synagogue. Ilia, the Baptist bishop who accompanies the group and has been involved in Georgia's interreligious dialogue for more than twenty years, also said that he felt at home. The songs, the common rituals and the participation of the whole congregation reminded him of his own congregation in the region north of Tblissi. Kjell, one of the German participants who has been studying Hebrew for a short time as part of his theology studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, was particularly pleased that he had understood a few words in the service. The security checks in front of the synagogue irritated the visitors, who found the search from unpleasant to unfriendly. The reception by the Jewish community, however, was all the more cordial once the security hurdle had been cleared.
After the exchange, the work begins. The group is dedicated to the history of Petriplatz, where the first church in Berlin stood until the 1960s before it was torn down by the socialist government in then East Berlin. The participants examine the remains of the medieval square in the foyer of the Capri Hotel, where the foundations of the original buildings can still be seen through an archaeological window. The history of Berlin, above all the effects of the Reformation on the society of the region, is thematically deepened with a visit to the Berlin Cathedral. Imam Mirtagi is astonished that an Anglican church is so splendidly furnished. For Emperor Wilhelm II, the neoclassical building was not least a means of demonstrating his own power.
The young people were deeply impressed by the monument to the murdered Jews of Europe, not least because monuments in Georgia and other countries were erected above all to emphasize victories and other great deeds, not failure. Everyone explores the corridors between the concrete blocks on their own. "Right in the middle of it, one begins to feel the hopelessness, a crushing feeling and also the tragedy of this past," says Zaza, Muslim and student from Tblissi, who also runs multi-religious youth camps for the Peace Academy in Tblissi as a youth leader. Other participants were annoyed by tourists sitting on the cubes, chatting and laughing.
In the evening the young Georgians visit the Forum Dialog to get to know the work of the Muslim founding member of the House of One. Forum Dialog is a nationwide initiative that has been active since 2008 and is committed to peaceful coexistence in Germany. Kübra Dalkilic and Safiyye Arslan present the main focus of their work and current projects to the visitors. The series "Enthemmte Mitte 2", for example, deals with Islamophobia and anti-Semitism among Muslims. The young people were very interested. Bishop Ilia says: "First we are all human beings and then only Turks, Germans, Georgians, engineers or teachers. And only then Muslim or Christian. Man stands before religion".
Wednesday, 24 October:
During the morning visit of the Parochialkirche the Georgians once again come across traces of the Second World War in Berlin. The topic of war also plays an important role in the discussions between the German and Georgian participants - with a view to the future in Europe, but also to the various armed conflicts that Russia has waged or is still waging with former Soviet republics and Georgia.
In the Kirchenforum of the Kirchenkreis Berlin Mitte Nord the participants will meet Süleyman Bag, member of the board of trustees of the House of One and Esther Hirsch, theological speaker. The review of the service on Simchat Torah in the synagogue Sukkat Schalom on Monday is at the centre of the discussion: What is the significance of the individual elements? The participants talk about their experiences. "It was like being at home", Bishop Ilia describes his feeling of security in the Jewish divine service. What actually constitutes the individual Abrahamic religions, what unites them and what distinguishes them? With these questions in mind, the group deals in more detail with the holy scriptures and their significance for the religions. These are questions that we also deal with again and again in the House of One.
In the afternoon we go to Wedding, another new district of Berlin for the visitors. Quite different in its cultural and religious composition and penetration than the center of the city. The participants visit the educational institution EVENTUS, where they learn more about the challenges of educational work in a multicultural and multi-religious environment. Intensive hours with many questions and new impressions.
In the evening, the opening concert of the 5th International Choir Festival ChorInt. takes place at the Kultur Akademie in Kreuzberg. The festival is organised and initiated by the parish of St. Petri - St. Marien and this year it will focus on the laying of the foundation stone of the House of One and thus also on the interreligious encounter. On four days, music from the different religions at the places of the respective religions will determine the programme. This evening is organized by the musician Metin Haboğlu and the Koran recitator Arhan Kardaş. Impressive music in the context of prayer and mediation, between past and modern. The conclusion is a multi-religious prayer.
A long day releases the young people from Georgia and Germany fulfilled into the citizen of Berlin night.
Thursday, 23 October:
Today we want to learn more about the history of the church. So the group sets off for Wittenberg to visit Martin Luther's place of work. On the way from the train station to the Luther House, the Georgians marvel at Luther's magnificent residence. Before the Reformation it was a monastery of the Augustinian hermits and Luther himself was a monk there. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Saxon elector transferred the building to the reformer, where Luther lived with his family from 1508.
Using the artefacts on display in the permanent exhibition, Kristin Bohner of the House of One tells of the upheavals in society at that time: a chest for the collected indulgence money, weapons from the peasant revolts, paintings and prints by Cranach before and after the Reformation. Mate, himself a Baptist and art student in Tblissi, is particularly struck by a book: a Koran with a foreword by Luther. Alexander is particularly caught by Luther's saying, which the reformer is said to have said in 1517: "Where Christ is, he always goes against the stream". The Baptist, who together with other participants founded the youth movement Civic Hall against the growing intolerance in Georgia, believes that this is still a guiding principle for believers today. According to Alexander, a Christian should swim against the current, for example not worry about widespread opinions about minorities or other religions.
The fact that Luther is not undisputed either becomes a topic when the group is shown the medieval relief "Judensau" from the year 1280 at the city church. In 1570 the sandstone relief was moved to its present location and supplemented with the inscription "Rabini Schem HaMphoras". The words refer to a book by Luther, "Vom Schem Hamphoras", in which he equates Jews with the devil and defames them. A complaint aimed at removing the anti-Semitic sculpture failed in May of this year.
The memorial for the dead of the Shoa is not a comparable counterweight. Since November 1988, a relief by the sculptor Wieland Schmiedel has been embedded in the floor below the medieval depiction, reminiscent of the Shoa. It is intended to admonish Christians never again to allow such atrocities "under the cross". In view of this medieval depiction on the church wall, which still leads to arguments today, the accompanying Imam, Sheikh Seyed Mirtagi Asadov, emphasizes the importance of initiatives aiming at encounter and tolerance, such as the House of One, as a sign of hope: "In the House of One Jews, Christians and Muslims jointly take responsibility for the past of Germany and thus prevent a repetition. Asadov works as a Shiite Imam in Marneuli, a city in southern Georgia near the border to Azerbaijan.
Inspired by the history of the theses that Martin Luther is said to have nailed to the door of the castle church after 1517, a lively discussion arises. What would be the demands that the participants of the youth exchange would make on their parish or their government today? More rights for minorities was a point on which young people from Georgia and Germany could agree. More social justice and state-sponsored social work were also high on the agenda.
The visit to the square where the pavilion of the House of One stood in 2017 - the Luther Year - comes to an end. During the four-month "World Exhibition" a Pentecost service, the Muslim festival Id al Fitr and the Jewish Kabbalat Shabbat were celebrated in the provisional building.
Friday, October 24th:
We arranged to meet in a Neuköllner Café in the Schillerkiez. The sun shines as the participants arrive from their accommodations in the different corners of Berlin.
There is a lot of chatting and laughing. Over the past few days, the group has become familiar with each other and friendships are developing. A Muslim and a Christian participant share a quarter and have come so close. Encounters that also change our perception. What are our common traditions that carry us instead of separating us? Living dialogue in the best sense of the word.
On the agenda is a visit to the Neuköllner Begegnungsstätte NBS e.V., which also houses the Dar-as-Salam Mosque. We have an appointment with Imam Mohamed Taha Sabri. Imam Sabri tells us about the mosque, which had previously been a New Apostolic Church. Imam Sabri is asked what role this plays for him. Sabri sees the continuation of faith in this place - once a church, now a mosque - as a symbol of continuity in the place, a continuation of tradition. In the building there is still prayer to God, only now there are people of different faith.
In the discussion the participants also come to the fear of the individual in society, when the Christian majority rejects the idea that one feels like a stranger. This is no different in Georgia than in Germany. Sabri says that he encourages the faithful in his mosque to be open. One has to jump over his shadow. Sometimes the perceived rejection is only connected with the fact that one knows oneself too little and not causally with religion, language or culture. Only through conversations and encounters does truth emerge, Sabri says. This is the basic prerequisite for peaceful coexistence.
Time flies, Friday prayer comes closer. The women are led into other rooms for prayer. For the Muslims from Georgia this is strange, even unpleasant. In Georgia, women and men pray together and also celebrate church services in the same way.
Back in the rooms of the House of One, the group reviews the day. There are many questions and again and again the comparative view of Georgia. Thus the German participants learn from a new youth movement "Civic Hall" to bring the cultural offers into the different regions of the country in order to meet the feeling of being dependent of many people and to convey to them a feeling of participation. Ideas for joint projects emerge, plans are forged.
Saturday, 25 October:
The work part of the youth exchange is over. Today the time is free. The participants do not use them for shopping, but meet on the Museum Island. Dealing with history - from wall drawings in the Bundestag to bullet holes in walls to places such as the Holocaust Memorial or the Wall Fall Memorial Bernauer Strasse - for Georgians this self-critical approach to their own past is a novelty. In their own words, visitors would also wish this for their country.
In the afternoon, the final concert of the 5th International Choir Music Festival ChorInt. in St. Marienkirche will crown the week. On behalf of the House of One, librettist Christian Lehnert and composer Saad Thamir have taken on the ring parable from Lessing's "Nathan the Wise". From this the oratorio scenes "In wüstem Land ohne Weg" were created, which will be premiered on this day.
During the late evening stroll through the historic Nikolai quarter, impressions and anecdotes are exchanged once again - despite language barriers that are overcome with electronic support - until everyone makes their way home.
Sunday, October 26th:
The official conclusion of the youth exchange will be the multi-religious celebratory service in the St. Mary's Church in the morning, in which the Baptist Bishop Ilia Osephashvili and the Shiite Sheikh Mirtagi Asadov will also be involved.
"Young Ambassadors of interreligious Dialogue" is written on the documents which the young women and men from Germany and Georgia hold in their hands at the end of the exchange. This is connected with the idea of not only taking the idea of dialogue and togetherness with them, but of carrying it on in their respective homelands.
The flight starts in the late afternoon, via Riga to Tbilisi. The time spent together has brought us closer, we have learned from each other, discovered new things. And we made friends.
Didi madlowa - thank you so much!