Divided Geneva marks 500 years of Calvinist rigour

Geneva, Switzerland - Geneva, once nicknamed the "Protestant Rome", is marking this month the 500th anniversary of John Calvin, an influential figure in the historic schism of Christianity who left his mark on this city.

But local authorities have struggled to find the best way to celebrate the birth of the controversial French theologian and leader in the Protestant Reformation.

The emaciated, bearded spiritual leader made for an unlikely idol, preaching austerity and repressing the slightest hint of sin, from flesh to alcohol or even merriment in the then sulphurous city-state in the 16th century.

Calvin played a key role in religious history as a leader of one of the currents of the Protestant movement that split from the Roman Catholics, forcing him to flee to Switzerland.

He is being celebrated because he turned a "provincial town into a European intellectual capital that became renowned through the centuries", according to the organisers of Geneva's "Year of Calvin".

"It's very revealing that Genevans like to speak of the 'city of Calvin'" explained Olivier Fatio, a professor at the Institute of the History of the Reformation.

Fatio believes a myth has been built up around Calvin, giving Geneva "a brand name, something like coca cola".

Some English language dictionaries to this day define "Genevan" as a follower of Calvin.

Nonetheless, his local legacy is controversial, dividing inhabitants between a traditional elite who honour the emblematic figure who shaped the city, and those who deride the 16th-century preacher as a "little ayatollah", as one blogger did.

To this day, much of Geneva's influential private banking community -- often built around family dynasties -- and decision makers have Calvinist roots, lending a slightly austere or restrained flavour to life in the lakeside city in western Switzerland.

But the local religious balance has shifted, partly due to the subsequent influx of refugees and immigrants that largely began with the fleeing Protestants in Calvin's era.

Nowadays, the majority of the canton of Geneva's population is Roman Catholic.

"Calvin is not a hero," Fatio said, acknowledging the difficulty in celebrating an austere personality who ultimately fought to impose his vision of a theocratic city on its reluctant inhabitants, who then numbered 25,000.

"He neither reinvented democracy nor capitalism, even if it's a fact that by justifying loans with interest payments, he broke with a medieval outlook on money," the historian said.

"He was interested in theology, preaching and saving souls, and that's hard to understand nowadays."

John Calvin lent his name to Calvinism, a belief that humans are fundamentally depraved, and taught Protestants who, like him, sought refuge in Geneva during a period of persecution in France and several other countries.

Calvin ultimately imposed religious decrees in the city-state for 23 years until his death in 1564, setting up a consistory, a tribunal of elders and pastors who acted as guardians of the faith and morals.

But he also separated the ecclesiastical from "civil" life and his decrees also touched on education, visits to prisoners and the infirm, while his humanist ethic remains, according to Geneva's International Museum of the Reform.

The highlight of this year's festivities is an outdoor play until July 26 called "Geneva Ablaze", an altogether less ambitious project than the city landmark, the Wall of Reformers, that was built at the last centenary in 1909.

The organisers said the play's title reflects the fervour that gripped this western corner of Switzerland under the influence of the reformer, and does not refer to Calvin's decision to burn an opponent at the stake for heresy.

They promise "an hour and three quarters of mad energy, life, emotion suspense and humour".

However, Calvin's memory conjured up contrasting feelings on an online blog opened by the local newspaper, the Tribune de Geneve.

He was described as a "fanatic", a "little ayatollah" who marked Geneva with his "penny pinching and moralising" manner.

In an interview with the Swiss Protestant Church's magazine, intellectual Xavier Comtesse, of the Avenir Suisse think-tank, proclaimed: "I am a Calvinist who likes parties."

Yet, veneration would be quite out of character for Calvin, he admitted. The theologian was buried anonymously to avoid any posthumous cult.