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Between Church and Mosque – Transformation of an (Inter)Religious Site in Hamburg: From the Capernaum Church to the Al-Nour Mosque

From the perspective of Critical Heritage Studies, this research explores social and material changes surrounding a transforming religious site in Hamburg, Germany.

Published onNov 13, 2022
Between Church and Mosque – Transformation of an (Inter)Religious Site in Hamburg: From the Capernaum Church to the Al-Nour Mosque

This study deals with the transformation from the Capernaum Church to the Al-Nour Mosque in Hamburg-Horn, Germany. As the title suggests, though, what is it that makes this site interreligious, when the building was once a church but now a mosque? The hypothesis I propose is that the building is situated between the two religious communities—the former Christian and the new Muslim community—and to a certain extent, belongs to both communities. Accordingly, the object of research is neither the church nor the mosque itself, but rather the transformation process between both states of the building. This transformation should be understood as an interreligious transition process and not merely as a church that became a mosque.

Since the building was initially designed and built as a church, it remains officially listed and protected as a church (Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media 2022: 4464; Kleineschulte 2021). This classification is exclusively based on the material dimension of the building and disregards the changes in its actual practice as a mosque. To incorporate this aspect of community and conversion into my analysis, I employ the approach of critical heritage studies, which considers cultural heritage not only in its material dimension but also in its social context.

From this angle, heritage is to be understood as a material object with historical or cultural value, which is passed on or inherited by a community (Harrison 2010). The building, which I consider to be heritage, can consequently be considered from four different angles: site, agents, narratives, and events. The site is the material representation of the heritage. Data regarding the site is collected through fieldwork and archival research in the form of photographs. The agents are the driving force of the heritage. They produce the meaning of the heritage through their narratives in which they render events and experiences in a certain way. Finally, events are “socially and morally meaning-making performative practices.” Data regarding the agents, narratives and events are collected through interviews, literature, and archival research (Björkdah et al. 2017). 

This approach allows me to examine both the material changes and changes in the human environment of the building. Based on this approach, my objective is to explore the opportunities of interreligious perspectives of a shared heritage that belongs to both religious communities. These perspectives can serve as a starting point for strengthening interreligious interaction between Christians and Muslims at a local level. Here, I present the background of the transformation and provide arguments to support my hypothesis.

The former Capernaum Church was built in 1961 in the Sievekingsallee 191 (von Rauch 2001). However, the congregation of the church diminished over the years. The church was closed in 2002 and, in 2005, deconsecrated and sold to an investor (Körs 2015). The building had been vacant for more than ten years when the Islamic Center Al-Nour bought it in 2012 (Ackermann 2016). The renovation work began in 2013 and was partly still ongoing by the beginning of 2021. The Islamic Center Al-Nour has used the building as a mosque since approximately 2019 (Abdin 2021).

The first argument relies on interreligiousness in the agents' narratives. This interreligiousness becomes apparent through the mutual acceptance of perspectives. Due to its architectural significance, the building is still considered a church by the Hamburg Monument Protection Office. Even though this classification creates tension due to the building’s use as a mosque, it does not irritate the Islamic Center Al-Nour and its community. On the contrary, the center's chairman, Daniel Abdin, said that the Centre’s board wants to keep the church according to the motto "outside church, inside mosque." They do not want to convey a sense of "taking away" the church, but rather want to preserve its character (Abdin 2021). Pastor Susanne Juhl, who led the last service at Capernaum Church, agreed with this statement. She said that during the renovation, it became apparent that much of the church was restored respectfully and at great expense (Juhl 2021). Based on this evidence I argue that the former Christian community and the new Muslim community embrace both the building’s past as a church and its present use as a mosque.

The second argument is based on the interreligious nature of the building. Some original ecclesiastical elements have been removed, while others have remained unchanged or have been adapted. In addition, new elements have been incorporated. For this reason, in terms of the appearance of the building, it is difficult to understand the transformation in two separate states.

A striking former element of the building is the glass walls (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2), which were renovated in the context of the conversion. For Abdin, this window wall, which was a central element of the church, is a vital part of the building's character and needed to be preserved throughout the conversion. Another important element is the tower or minaret and the symbol on its top (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4). After the cross was dismantled and donated to another church, the Islamic Center Al-Nour decided to equip the top of the minaret with the name for God in Arabic letters (الله, in transliteration: Allāh) instead of a crescent (Abdin 2021). This was a conscious decision to represent the idea that God unites Christians and Muslims. The belief in God was maintained during the transformation of the building, only the path of faith was different (Juhl 2021). 

One element that was changed as part of the conversion was the gallery. Since in Hamburg the direction of prayer for Muslims is to the southeast, the former gallery (Fig. 5) was in the way. It was adjusted to match the direction of prayer. The intarsia, which used to decorate the balustrade of the gallery, was donated to another church (Abdin 2021). Calligraphic verses from the Quran were used to replace it (Fig. 6). Newly introduced to the building was the miḥrāb (Arabic: prayer niche) (Fig. 7), which indicates the direction of prayer. In addition to its directional function, the miḥrāb also has a ceremonial and ritual function, making it an important hallmark of the mosque (Andrew 1999). There was also a plaque hanging in the interior of the mosque that shows the translation of four verses from the Quran concerning the character of Mary (Fig. 8). Although the figure of Mary can lead to theological tensions between Christians and Muslims, it is nevertheless a symbol of mediation between the two religions (Pelikan 1996). Juhl said that the plaque showed the effort to find common ground (Juhl 2021).

In conclusion, the building has undergone profound changes. Against the background of its conversion, such changes are expected. Nevertheless, it also becomes apparent that perspectives of shared heritage are possible. From these perspectives, the building can be considered a representation of both a mosque and a church, even though in current practice, it is exclusively used as a mosque. These perspectives enable the building to be a place of dialogue and encounter between the two religious communities.


Figure 1: The interior of the Capernaum church with a view to the window wall. n.d. 
© Staatsarchiv Hamburg - Foto Nicolai Wieckmann/720-1/343-1/D0001861.

Figure 2: The interior of the Al-Nour Mosque with the integrated balcony and a view to the window wall. 2021.
© Leon Woltermann.

Figure 3: The steeple of the church during the vacancy. n.d. 
© Staatsarchiv Hamburg - Foto: Nicolai Wieckmann 720-1/343-1/D0001875.

Figure 4: The minaret of the Al-Nour Mosque. 2021
© Leon Woltermann.

Figure 5: The former gallery with an intarsia on the parapet in the vacant building of the Capernaum Church. n.d.
 © Staatsarchiv Hamburg - Foto: Nicolai Wieckmann-720-1/343-1/D0001867.

Figure 6: The converted gallery of the Al-Nour Mosque with the calligraphy of verses from the Quran. 2021.
© Leon Woltermann.

Figure 7: The miḥrāb or prayer niche of the Al-Nour Mosque which indicates the direction of prayer toward Mecca. 2021.
© Leon Woltermann.

Figure 8: Translated verses of the Quran in the interior of the Al-Nour Mosque, 2021.
© Leon Woltermann.


Abdin, Daniel. Interviewed by Leon Woltermann. Interview via Zoom. January 27, 2021.

Ackermann, Michael. 2016. „Eine Kirche wird Moschee“. Hamburg: Landesinstitut für Lehrerbildung und Schulentwicklung.

Björkdahl, Annika, Susanne Buckley-Zistel, Stefanie Kappler, Johanna Mannergren Selimovic, and Timothy Williams. 2017. “Memory Politics, Cultural Heritage and Peace: Introducing an Analytical Framework to Study Mnemonic Formations.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3206571. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.

Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media, Denkmalliste. May 23, 2022.

Harrison, Rodney. 2010. Understanding the Politics of Heritage. Manchester: Manchester University Press in association with the Open University.

Kleineschulte, Stefan. Interviewed by Leon Woltermann. Interview via email communication. January 29, 2021.

Körs, Anna. 2015. Kirchenumnutzungen aus soziologischer Sicht: Wenn eine Kirche zur Moschee wird und weshalb dies ein gesellschaftlicher Gewinn sein kann. In: Kunst und Kirche. 04/2015. Wien: Medecco Holding GmbH. 55-62.

Juhl, Susanne. Interviewed by Leon Woltermann. Interview via Zoom. March 10, 2021.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. 1996. Mary through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Petersen, Andrew. 1999. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. Reprint Edition. London: Routledge.

Von Rauch, Andreas. 2001. Gutachten Kapernaumkirche in Horn, Sievekingsallee 191, K432. Updated 2012 by Stefan Kleineschhulte. Hamburger Denkmalschutzamt.


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