One of the most recognisable symbols of Reykjavík is Hallgrímskirkja, a towering concrete church that sits upon one of the highest points of the city, and is clearly visible from just about anywhere in the capital area. In fact, from the nation’s capital to the smallest village, the church almost always takes the high ground. Which would stand to reason – the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland enjoys the financial support of the Icelandic fiscal budget, and is a part of the Ministry of Justice.
What you won’t see, neither sitting on a hill nor anywhere else, is a mosque or an Orthodox church, despite the fact that there are hundreds of Muslims and Orthodox Christians living in Iceland, and despite the fact that both of these religious groups have been trying to get land to build their own houses of worship for at least the past five years. The only thing standing in the way of a mosque or an Orthodox church being built in Reykjavík is Reykjavík City Council.
As of now, Reykjavík’s Orthodox community worships in a largish apartment owned by the Russian embassy, just across the street from the Catholic church (the official church of Iceland from 1000 until 1550, when Bishop Jón Arason was beheaded). The Grapevine attended a service being held in honour of St. Nicholas. Among the fifty or so worshippers crowded into the space were chief planning official of the Reykjavík planning office Helga Bragadóttir, managing director of Landsbanki Brynjólfur Helgason, and President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.
The priest, Reverend Timofei, began the service by explaining that this mass was to be a compromise of sorts.
“Orthodox mass is a bit longer than Lutheran mass,” he said, almost apologetically, “so we will try to preserve the beauty of Orthodox mass while trying to make sure that it isn’t too long for some of our special guests here today.”
Mass then began, with most of the worshippers standing throughout most of the service while the special guests sat in chairs.
At the service’s conclusion, which had included prayers dedicated to President Grímsson (whom Reverend Timofei described to the Grapevine as “always very supportive of the Orthodox church here in Iceland”), the president was presented with an Orthodox calendar. The guests did not stay for very long afterwards, but the Grapevine got the chance to speak with Reverend Timofei about the precarious situation the Orthodox community now finds itself in.
“The Russian embassy owns this apartment,” he explained, “and they’ve been very gracious about letting us use this space for worship. But we will have to move out by the end of January, because they need it back.”
“Where will worship be held then?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
In November 2004, members of the Orthodox Church of Iceland applied to Reykjavík City Council for a plot of land to build a church.
“They told us that it’s a long process,” said Reverend Timofei, “and that the first step is asking the neighbours if they would accept the idea of an Orthodox church next to them.”
The Orthodox met with city council next in June 2005, where they were told there was “good news.”
“We were told that a plot of land had been decided on, at Öskjuhlíð,” Reverend Timofei told the Grapevine. “And that the whole process would be finished by September.”
Content in this knowledge, they waited through the summer. When September came and went without any word, they began to get “a little worried.” In November, they decided to contact the city council again to see what progress had been made.
“They told us that they hadn’t yet gotten around to talking to the neighbours,” sighed Reverend Timofei. “Nothing had happened.”
When asked what reasons, if any, were given for the delay, Reverend Timofei told us, “They told us that there was to be a crematorium nearby, and they weren’t certain how we would feel about that.” At this point, he chuckled wryly, shaking his head. “Cremation certainly isn’t traditional to the Orthodox faith, but we do it. There are even churches in Moscow that perform cremations. We’re not against them.”
Adding insult to injury, the process itself expired at the end of December 2005. At the time the Grapevine spoke with Reverend Timofei, he had basically two options: get an extension from Mayor Steinunn Valdís Óskarsdóttir, or begin the process all over again. He told us that he had written to the mayor in November, but had not yet heard back from her. He is still waiting to hear from her at the time of this writing.
Sharing a potential plot of land near the planned Orthodox Church is a planned mosque. The Grapevine contacted chairman of the Association for Muslims in Iceland Salmann Tamimi to see if Iceland’s Muslim community – which Tamimi estimates number around 400 – had fared any better with Reykjavík City Council.
“We first applied for a plot of land [also at Öskjuhlíð] in January 2001,” he told us. “And we were told that we would have land to build a mosque. Will that ever be? I don’t know.”
The Muslim community was initially offered a plot of land measuring 1,500 square metres – less than half of the 3,500 square metres required for the mosque, library and of course parking lot for worshippers.
Tamimi was visibly upset when talking about the process the Muslim community has been going through in getting a plot of land from city council.
“We never received a written answer about anything,” he told the Grapevine. “It’s been very frustrating. There is never a concrete answer to our questions about what’s going on. It’s beginning to get on my nerves.”
Currently, Iceland’s Muslim community squeezes into a conference hall on Ármúli that measures “about 100 square metres, which is just about large enough for us to pray in.”
“And that’s just a temporary situation,” Tamimi told us, “it’s just one big room. It’s completely unsuitable. But we really need some answers before [city council] elections come up [this spring].”
The Grapevine spoke with Dagur B. Eggertsson, a member of city council, a member of the planning office since December 2004, and currently a mayoral contender for the Social Democratic Party. Eggertsson confirmed everything Reverend Timofei had told us, but seemed to imply that the Muslim complaint that the land they were offered was too small had somehow interfered with the process of getting land for the Orthodox Church.
“We began working on setting aside this land for these religious houses in November 2004,” he explained. “but then the Muslims told us that the land we had offered them was too small. So we began working on that, and that has taken some time. But I hope to get this taken care of in the beginning of .”
When the Grapevine asked if the separate requests for land from the Orthodox and the Muslims were being handled as a group, Eggertsson told us, “When you set aside a piece of land where two different people are going to be living next to each other, you are required by law to handle them together. And there you run into certain complexities, where you have to look at who fits with who, whether you’re talking about houses, or shops, or churches. And churches can be quite sensitive, particularly towards each other. But I think there is some ingrown prejudice as well, that churches hate each other. I do not think they do.”
When the Grapevine then asked if either the Orthodox or the Muslims had expressed any concerns about living next to each other, Eggertsson replied, “No, I think that there were some concerns that [living next to each other] would lead to in-fighting between them,” but reiterated that no representatives from the Orthodox or the Muslim communities ever said they were against the idea of living next to each other.
Eggertsson told the Grapevine that he hopes to complete the process of getting land for the Orthodox and Muslim communities to build houses of worship “early this year.”
“But it’s a work in progress,” he added, “so we’ll see.”