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Here come the faithful of NYC. Photo series by Martin Schoeller in Suddeustche Zeitung

New York has a greater diversity of religions than anywhere else in the world. Martin Schoeller has portrayed them in a SZ-Fotokolumne.

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By Andrian Kreye

If you come from a country with two very dominant Christian denominations to New York, it seems like a liberation. One believes one is experiencing a city in which religion does not seem to matter. It was, after all, New York that the theologian Harvey Cox proclaimed in 1965 as the "secular city" in his eponymous book, or as the German translation called it: “City without God.”

However, one quickly realizes that faith can be much stronger here than at home in Germany. And at least as omnipresent, even if not everywhere are the church bells ringing. For example, living on the Lower East Side, the traditional gateway for immigrants, faith soon creeps into all the senses. On warm days from the Pentecostals of Iglesia El Eden, you could hear their psalm singing. The aroma of the incense sticks on the altars in the Chinese basement ran through the streets. At the corner, the Yemenites were seen in the back of their shop praying. And no, the bialys from Kossar's bakery have nothing to do with religion, but they are still a relic of the time, when here the Jewish faith found a first center in the new world.

For fifteen years, the number of believers in this city has steadily increased

Soon you came across more and more strange forms of belief. On Broadway was the “Mitzvah tank,” that campervan of the Hasidim, which on its missionary patrols should bring the weak believers back to the purity of Orthodoxy. A few blocks north, the wildly costumed disciples of the Israelite Church of God preached that Jesus was a black man and every white man a devil. In the back streets, Botanicas sold the accessories for the rituals of Santeria and Voodoo.

The German photographer Martin Schoeller, 49, was similar in his first years after moving to New York in 1993. “I did not know that there were so many religions in one place,” he says. After his apprenticeship with Annie Leibovitz, he soon developed his “close-ups,” portraits with enormous luminosity, which he made of stars and politicians and which were soon to be seen on the titles of the major magazines worldwide, and on the pages of the New Yorker where he became the successor of home photographer Richard Avedon. Again and again, he suggested to magazines that they make a series of pictures with believers. All refused. The project was too delicate for them, too great was the danger that the believers could interpret a comparison with other religions as a strife-ridden competition.

In the summer of this year, he started his project in cooperation with the Süddeutsche Zeitung. In the coming months, he will present his pictures every Friday in the new photo column “The Believers” in the feature section. At the same time, he will publish them on his Instagram account ( /), where he is finishing a similar series on the homeless in Los Angeles. There are also protocols of the faithful and clergy whose confessions should remain uncommented.

New York is the ideal city for that. There is nowhere in the world with such a wide variety of religions as here. This is an academically proven, though statistically barely recorded fact. For the US offices and institutes for statistics are just as difficult as the picture editors, although the US does censuses in which almost all personal data are recorded and made public, regardless of whether income, criminal records, housing or the ethnic background (which still means race in the official English).

However, journalist and urban religions expert Tony Carnes confirms our observations. “We have a great deal of experience studying the religions in metropolitan areas and are confident that New York City has the greatest diversity.” There are indications. “The US Census shows that the Elmhurst district in the Queens borough, with people from 156 different nations, is the most ethnically diverse place in the world. A study by the Institute for Endangered Languages found that New York is also the place where the world's most languages are spoken, more than 800. And most immigrants bring their faith.” For immigrants, faith has always been a home in foreign countries.

Does the superlative applies to the rest of the world? “London could compete with New York, but based on the British Census, I think diversity in New York is higher," says Carnes. Another study found that proportionally more believers live in New York than in the "Bible Belt" of the South. Except that it is not just Christians, because in the US, even sects such as Scientology and the Church of Satan get the tax-free status of a religious community. And just in the last 15 years, the religions in New York have multiplied enormously.

Here every religion has its own place, which no one else can dispute

According to Carnes' long-term study for A Journey through NYC religions, Harvey Cox's secular metropolis has become the exemplary post-secular metropolis, directly following Jürgen Habermas's idea of a post-secular society. Faith cannot be more democratic. Here every religion has its own place, which no one else can dispute. Even atheism and secular humanism stand apart as equal systems of belief.

That was important to Martin Schoeller right from the beginning: “When I arrived in New York, David Dinkins was mayor, who at the time coined the term 'city of the city' as a beautiful mosaic. And that's exactly what the diversity of faiths shows.” Especially at a time when religion is being abused for division and conflict, this series does not show a strife-ridden competition of confessions, but rather a look at people who believe.

The series is appearing every Friday in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, one Germany's largest papers. For current features click on the newspaper's logo:

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