A building that houses a synagogue, a mosque and a church has opened in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
The Peace Project, as it is known, is the brainchild of Metropolitan Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili after riots against various minorities in Georgia in 2013 spurred him to show how the different faiths can unite against prejudice.
In a three-day event over last weekend to mark the opening, there were services of dedication in the mosque on Friday and the church on Sunday, while I officiated in the synagogue on Shabbat. The packed congregation consisted of members of all three faiths.
Jews told me it was very emotional to see such acceptance and welcome.
Many Muslims said they found it fascinating to witness a Jewish service for the first time, while several Christians said they were moved to tears that the enmity of the past had culminated in such a harmonious rapprochement.
The synagogue ark (Photo: Copyright Unknown)
The service included blowing from a shofar, which was used in ancient times not only for the High Holy Days but also to herald special events, and which was now being used to announce a unique interfaith venture.
As one of the Georgian Jewish community told me afterwards: “My ancestors suffered persecution from both other faiths, and would rejoice at how much has changed.”
The physical proximity of the three places of worship sends a powerful message that Jews, Christians and Muslims can not only talk about harmony but literally live alongside each other.
There is a shared communal area in the form of “The Abrahamic Hall”, which can be used individually or jointly depending on the events being held, whether a kiddush after a Shabbat service or a discussion between the faiths.
The Peace Project is not just a matter of bricks and mortar, but also of all three faiths changing attitudes. This includes Christians renouncing attempts at conversion of both other faiths, while Jews and Muslims must ensure that problems in the Middle East are not imported to Georgia and allowed to cloud local relationships.
“The project is meant to make a contribution to the elimination of prejudice, fear and hatred accumulated in the Abrahamic family, and bring about positive change in their relationships,” said Bishop Songulashvili.
The new synagogue (Photo: Copyright Unknown)
Imam Taj Hargey said: “Islam is often misunderstood and essentially it is a religion of peace. Our image has been corrupted by the likes of Isis and al-Qaeda. This is a chance to remind people that peace is at the heart of Islam.”
The synagogue was designed with historic associations, with 12 windows representing the 12 tribes, while the Aron Kodesh is reminiscent of that in the historic 3rd-century Dura Europos Synagogue, Syria.
All three sacred spaces each have two columns. This common feature not only links them visually, but symbolises two fundamental principles they share: loving God and loving one’s neighbour.
It was stipulated that people could only donate to the prayer space of another faith. So Jews and Christians helped fund the mosque, while Muslims and Christians funded the synagogue.
The Peace Project will host educational programmes at different levels, and it is hoped it will become a European centre for interfaith studies.
There are about 5,000 Jews in Georgia, up to half of whom live in Tbilisi. The community is the result of various waves of immigration, with exiles from Babylon in the 5th century and refugees fleeing Spain in 1492, and later by Jews from the Ottoman empire.
There is an Orthodox synagogue in Tbilisi, but few young people attend. They are attracted to the more adventurous agenda of the Peace Synagogue, which is non-denominational.
It does not yet have a rabbi: two members of the congregation, both called Mischa, lead services.
Jonathan Romain is the minister of Maidenhead Synagogue