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The city of twenty-three confessions

Cultural Diversity. For the fourth year running a series of activities display, interconnect and promote Barcelona’s religious diversity.

La Nit de les Religions is being held on 14 and 15 September. A night to discover different religions, worship and convictions in Barcelona. A night for believers and atheists. A night to share respectfully with others and enjoy. 


Four years ago a group of young people from the UNESCO Association for Interreligious and Interconvictional Dialogue (AUDIR) met on a monthly basis to learn about religious diversity in the city. A young woman from the group was familiar with The Long Night of Religions, a project which was started in Berlin in 2012. A project which became a reality in Barcelona: La Nit de les Religions.

Today this initiative to visit different places of worship and meet worshippers all around the city in a single night, sharing folkloric and cultural experiences, has become popular all across Europe, within the framework of the Religions in Action project. It is now a firmly established event in Barcelona.

A night which gets longer

Sergi Arévalo, an AUDIR member and coordinator of La Nit de les Religions, tells us how the event started: “The first night was organised in 2016. It started with 24 communities and the format we’re currently using, with mainly self-guided visits which can be chosen from the information leaflet”. 

The night has proved an undeniable success, very well-received by the city’s religious communities and people who take part. Sergi assures us: “La Nit has kept growing in participating entities and communities: there were 24 communities the first year, 33 the second, 40 after that and now 54. Some organisations take part jointly in activities: this year there are 51 activities being organised by 54 communities, and it’s an event which is strongly linked to citizens. An estimated three thousand people go on visits”.

Arévalo continues: “A lot of people see the programme and think they can visit lots of centres but end up visiting just three or four. That means people come back the following year to visit other communities. The event has also gained in diversity, one example being the participation this year of the non-religious conviction Ateus de Catalunya. Because interreligious dialogue has also got to include dialogue between people of different convictions and philosophies, beyond religions themselves”.

La Nit de les Religions 2019.

This activity to visit places of worship and discover new convictions is a day longer in 2019: La Nit will carry on into Sunday morning, responding to calls from participants, who wanted to be able to visit more communities. The capacity for the opening ceremony is also greater as it had become too small. The assembly room at the Espai Francesca Bonnemaison will host the welcome ceremony on Saturday at 12.30 pm, with speeches and a performance of songs from various world cultures by the group Burruezo & Medievalia Camerata.

“The thing that probably stands out most this year is the participation of the Ateus de Catalunya. But there are more new things: for instance, the AUDIR dialogue group will be offering a local guided tour in Sants and Hostafrancs. The visit will be conducted with the Associació Antropologies and includes the Santa Maria de Sants parish church, the Alcance Victoria de Sants evangelical church and the Centre Cultural Al Rahma – Mesquita de Sants. Guided visits were already being offered by the Grup Interreligiós del Raval, who will continue to organise them, and this year the Espai Avinyó will also be doing the same. This would appear to be the way ahead in the future: the idea is for all areas to participate so that in the end the activity is not about promoting religious tourism but rather mutual knowledge, respect and dialogue. The more places in the city of Barcelona take part, the more familiar local people will become with the religious environment”, notes the coordinador. 

Nearly all the activities for La Nit de les Religions are free and do not require registration in advance, with admission free until the maximum capacity is reached. 

Who’s behind La Nit de les Religions?

AUDIR is the promotor of La Nit de les Religions. Apart from organising this event, AUDIR is a pluriconfessional Catalan entity. It brings together and mobilises people of different religious traditions working in conjunction with the main international interreligious dialogue organisations to foster knowledge, interreligious dialogue and cooperation between the various religious confessions present in Catalonia, from the perspective of the culture of dialogue and peace.

This network of collaborators includes officials, experts, and more than anything ordinary qualified members. The managing board of the entity is currently made up of a Unitarian, a Protestant, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a member of the Bahá’í faith, a Jew and five Catholics.

Barcelona City Council has also collaborated with La Nit from the start, as has the Obra Social “la Caixa”

Religions, confessions and convictions in the city of Barcelona

Barcelona is very diverse in religions, confessions and convictions.And that diversity is growing:rising from 375 centres of worship in 2002 to 569 in 2018.The city is home to 23 different confessions, according to data for 2018 from the city’s Office for Religious Affairs (OAR). A look at percentages shows that Catholicism is the confession which accounts for the largest part of the map, with 42% of centres of worship, followed by Evangelism, with 36%. Islam follows a long way behind at 5%. The least represented religious confessions in terms of the number of centres are the Bahá’í faith, with 0.2%, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with 0.4%

Núria Gallach, a specialist from the Office for Religious Affairs, explains: “It fluctuates a lot. There are small churches that merge, new ones that appear and others that get divided up. The office tries to classify them in terms of convictions to know whether they’re Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish etc.” But labels are tricky when talking about convictions. And diversity predominates: “The Evangelists, for instance, take just as many forms as there are prayer centres, as they’re very much based on the direct interpretation of the text”, explains Khalid Ghali, coordinator of the OAR before being named as the Commissioner for Intercultural Dialogue and Religious Pluralism.  

It’s difficult to use exact figures for how many religious people there are in the city: “Legally we can’t ask a person what their religion is. Consequently, we can’t know how many people there are of one confession or another, but we do have a register of prayer centres which can be used to get a break-down of people’s convictions in the city”, explains Khalid.

But the number of centres is not the same as the number of users. He gives an example: “A prayer centre for 40 people is not the same as one for 500. In the same way, Catalan protestants from the last 150 years are not the same as newly arrived Evangelists. A centre of worship with a social action programme is not the same as a community which basically only conducts its own practice”.

Ghali continues: “In Barcelona, we’ve got communities which range from those with solid structures for political and economic influence to others which struggle to handle basic administrative procedures, such as filling in a form. We’re talking about all sorts of differences: linguistic, cultural, economic and social. And, in terms of doctrines, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of putting them all in the same pigeon-hole. An Evangelical movement from China is not the same as one from France”. 

On the subject of minority convictions in the city, Núria notes: “There’s only one Taoist centre in the city, the same as the Bahá’í faith, a relatively new faith which started in the former Persia two hundred years ago and is based on a cyclomatic structure, and Sikhism and Scientology. The Mormons have got two, one of them is huge, with three big floors, and Islam has only got 29 prayer centres in the city, a similar number to Buddhism.” 

Núria and Khalid keep talking about convictions, rather than religions. They justify it thus: article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t talk about religions, but rather rights and beliefs, a right also set out by the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia and the Spanish Constitution.

What does the Office for Religious Affairs do?

Entities and people of different religions and convictions can approach Barcelona’s Office for Religious Affairs. Khalid Ghali describes the office as a “point of reference for different communities, whether large ones or minorities”.

The religious communities and organisations attended to most by the office in 2018 were Islamic ones (42%) and Christian Evangelical ones (25%). The office also helps religious entities access economic resources and provides information and support for subsidy applications. Line R of Barcelona City Council’s general call for subsidies provides support for initiatives and projects which help further knowledge about religious diversity and respect for religious freedom, as well as for activities linked with festivities and religious and interreligious events.

Subsidies were awarded to 35 of the 46 projects presented in 2018. Catholic and Islamic organisations presented the most applications for subsidies, with the fewest coming from Hinduism and Buddhism. The budget for this call in 2018 remains unchanged, with an overall sum of 70,000 euros available. 

The role of the OAR is also very important for intervention in situations which involve facilitating communication and mediating between different parties, providing at least one of them is a religious entity. The other parties involved may be other religious communities, non-confessional entities, a different municipal body to the OAR, members of a community and venue owners.

Specific questions vary greatly in their nature and range from complaints about noise to the possibility of two communities sharing a venue, or the facilitation of agreements with district services with a view to complying with regulations. Mediation was carried out in 63 cases in 2018, mostly in the districts of Nou Barris, Ciutat Vella and Sant Martí. In 56% of cases mediation was provided between religious communities and municipal bodies, while in 24% of cases it was between religious communities and local residents. By confession, 54% corresponded to Islamic communities and 29% to Christian Evangelism.

The office also helps the City Council itself by providing information, participating or mediating with specialist municipal teams from the city’s districts. Another of its functions is to offer training on religious diversity, which is given to public sector workers such as City Police officers and staff from community centres. In short, the areas where the OAR acted the most or provided information were training on religious diversity (29%), advice on religious diversity (26%) and support for community activities and celebrations (14%)

City and Islamophobia

Prejudice against Islam and those who practice it is commonplace these days. The conflict over the opening of a mosque in C/ Japó two years ago is something people still remember. Ghali is clear on this subject: “The concept of Islamophobia is a key one. The far right started from a norm-based process such as the opening of a prayer centre, using it to mobilise a minority of local residents and turn an administrative situation into a political and community conflict. In the end all the fears they brought to the fore, for instance about congestion and noise, proved to be false. This instrumentalisation is going on today with unaccompanied minors”. 

The OAR was involved in mediation over C/ Japó, forming part of the coordination board with security forces and prevention specialists. The office offered advice and educational prevention services for the community and the district office.

Today the mosque in Nou Barris is no longer an excuse for generating conflict, although others are likely to come up. The former OAR coordinator is in no doubt that “since the Berlin wall came down a new enemy has been constructed and it’s called Islam. Many of the conflicts after the wall came down have taken place in Muslim countries and these wars have developed into political ideals. Europe already has an anti-Semitic culture, but we’ve stopped focusing on Jews in order to target Muslims. This, added to the fact that Spain has started receiving migrants (when it had always been a place people emigrated from), has led to the Spanish right constructing a narrative about the other, based on three historical concepts in people’s imagination: the Muslim invasion of the 7th century, the supposed non-integration of communities such as the Jews or the Roma people and the idea of the enemy within, based on anti-Semitic narrative”, concludes Ghali. 

Services such as the OAR and entities such as AUDIR are working to overcome these ideas laden with prejudice and for people to be able to live as a community.  

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