The Esplanade des religions: a unique example in Europe

- through Sophie Solere

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Guided tour of a crossroads where religions coexist.

Seen from above, Bussy Saint-Georges is a new town which is colonizing its territory with a great deal of parallel avenues and perpendicular streets. The city is deformed by the works, the fields disappear under the concrete and the constructions spring from the ground from one year to another. A dynamic mushroom city whose statistics make you dizzy: 500 inhabitants in 1985, 50 expected in 000, a population that will multiply by 2030 in 100 years!

With such demographics, cultural mixing was inevitable. The city has made it a strength. Here, in the middle of the roundabouts, statues of Hindu elephants, Shiva goddesses or Peking stone dragons stand. In Bussy, the sacred borders on the profane and the town is intended to be multi-denominational. The best proof can be found in the south of the town, in the middle of the green zone of the Parc du Genitoy. The Madame de Montespan alley hosts the most incredible collection of religious buildings there is: a synagogue, a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a Laotian pagoda, but also, in the pipeline, a Hindu temple, another Protestant and an Armenian church! All five minutes from a Catholic church, Notre Dame du Val. In Bussy, the Star of David rubs shoulders with the Buddha which adjoins the cross of Christ! The places of worship of several spiritualities live their faith side by side. This place is called the Esplanade des Religions. In fact, it's a laboratory interreligious. A unique case in France.

This story, the Mayor, Yves Dubosc, knows it by heart. “In the 2000s, the town hall offered officials of different religions to buy land at advantageous prices. A helping hand on the condition of respecting a charter of living well together. After which, it is up to each cult to finance its own building. The Mayor is visibly delighted to talk about the esplanade. He goes on: “The main thing is that no one proselytizes. It would be the death of the model. And that is why Bussy Saint-Georges is hailed by UNESCO as a “city for interreligious dialogue”. There's something to be proud of, right? " Certainly.

At the crossroads of spiritual paths

So let's go up this famous Madame de Montespan alley, now much better known as the Esplanade des Religions et des Cultures. On the right, the park of an old castle in ruins (in which the favorite of Louis XIV gave birth to one of his natural sons in 1672); on the left, the row of religious buildings. With number 1 the blue prefab of the Jewish community of Bussy. Waiting for ten years to be replaced by a synagogue, it is still there, for lack of funding. But Claude Windisch is optimistic: “We can move mountains when we want! And in fact, by dint of stubbornness, the Jewish community, of which he is the President, finally found enough to finance the beginning of the work of the synagogue. “We start at the end of 2020. The rest will follow when the walls are up. We are the smallest of the communities on the esplanade, but admit that it is unthinkable that we are not represented on the esplanade...” And since Bussy is not stingy with strong symbols, the synagogue will be built right next to it. of the mosque. On purpose. The slab is also poured. “A decision that caused a lot of talk, but that everyone now assumes as it brings hope. »

On the same sidewalk, at number 3, rises the massive structure of the Ch'an Fa Hua Buddhist Temple of Fo Guang Shan France. A silhouette all in cubes, fashioned of raw concrete, glass and wood. A minimalist architectural gesture, for a cultural center that extends over more than 7000 m2. “We waited for it for twenty years,” sighs Miao Da, one of the six Venerables of the Fo Guang Shan association in France.. “Our previous pagoda, in Vitry-sur-Seine, had become much too narrow. From now on, the temple of Bussy is the seat in Europe of our association created about fifty years ago by the Venerable Hsing Yun. With her soft voice and chosen words, Miao Da points out that the Buddhists were the first on the Esplanade to build a religious building. “We were supported by everyone. We are giving France an example of fraternity by ignoring our differences…”

Inside the temple, you can follow a Buddhist teaching or Chinese lessons, meditate in the prayer rooms or share a meditation with the forty retreatants from all over the world. A real cultural and worship center, under the protection of a giant Buddha in white jade, five meters high and eight tons heavy. The city is not afraid of superlatives, the temple of Bussy Saint-Georges is therefore quite naturally the largest Buddhist temple in Europe...

An interreligious laboratory

A few more meters, and here we are at number 5 of the alley, at the Laotian Buddhist monastery Wat Velouvanaram. A pagoda, this time with the outward signs of a practice in the Theravada tradition, a current of Sri Lankan origin. The Lao pagoda, with its superimposed spiky roofs and its statue of Mercy, also offers meditation courses and Buddhist teaching. It is not surprising that the two temples cohabit in the alley: 40% of the population of Bussy Saint-Georges is from Asia!

“Faith gives wings. This idea of ​​uniting all religions in one place is extraordinary. We are Bussy's showcase. » Farid Chaoui

If the Buddhists had no trouble building their temples, the Muslims had more difficulty. Financing is a subject that Farid Chaoui knows by heart. “For six years, from 2008 to 2014, we ran in all directions,” he admits with an amused smile. “We finally received donations from everywhere, from France and abroad. At the head of the Twaba Association (repentance), he manages Muslim worship while assuming the rotating presidency of the Association of the Esplanade of Religions and Cultures. “Faith gives wings. This idea of ​​uniting all religions in one place is extraordinary. We are Bussy's showcase. »

At the far end of the esplanade, at number 11, the minaret of the mosque pierces the sky with its crescent moon. Roof tilted towards Mecca, the building is both a place of worship and a cultural centre. An essential double function for Farid Chaoui. He insists: “The Muslim cultural center is there to raise awareness. Among Muslims, but also among all our fellow citizens. There is a library, plastic art workshops and classrooms to learn Arabic or take remedial courses..." A formula that has been a real success since it was necessary to triple the surface of the center by digging classrooms in the basement!

And what about the presence of Catholics on the Esplanade? For the moment, if they are a little apart geographically speaking, they are just as active as the other spiritual currents in the association. Father Dominique Fontaine, parish priest of the Notre Dame du Val church, located a few minutes from the Allée Madame de Montespan, assures him: “We also want to settle on the Esplanade. We are obviously not going to build a church, we already have two, one of which is several hundred years old! On the other hand, we intend to build a “Maison Saint-François d'Assise” in collaboration with the Apprentis d'Auteuil and the Secours Catholique to help fragile and isolated mothers. »

Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and soon Hindus and Armenians, all agree on the unequaled educational role of the Esplanade and its openness to multi-confessionalism. "Knowledge avoids hatred", insists Yves Dubosc. City schools have made the Esplanade and its various cults a regular outing. Children of all origins find a part of their history and their identity there. Everyone welcomes the initiative taken twenty years ago by the mayor at the time, Hugues Rondeau. He created an inter-religious laboratory and placed the city in a dynamic of tolerance.

So there would be no problem in this spiritual cohabitation? Not according to its promoters. The key, they all insist, is to ensure that no current seeks to proselytize. The members of the association are very vigilant on this point. And they make it a point of honor to leave at the door of the Esplanade any subject of international news that could disturb the fraternity between religions. A balancing act.

The week of our visit, in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, the parish priest of Notre Dame du Val gave a mass. Arrived at the time of the Eucharist, he asked everyone not to shake hands as is traditional. On the other hand, he proposed to his faithful to adopt the sign of reverence of the Buddhists. A mudra, actually. Hands clasped in front of the chest as a sign of respect. Anjali Mudra. If even Catholics manage to appropriate, if only temporarily, the ritual of Buddhists, it is because the wind blowing over Bussy Saint-Georges is indeed that of tolerance.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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