clitheroe-mosque.jpgI admit that’s a bit of a hook for this post, but I make no apologies. Today’s NY Times has a fascinating article about the the former home of the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Clitheroe, England. The impressive stone church building has been a factory that makes scarves for the past forty years, but is now once again the home of faith: Islam.

Converted structures for new faiths are nothing new, and historically, the conversion of a church to a mosque or a mosque to a church has been a feature of both faiths since the seventh century. I don’t need to list examples, but two of the most famous are the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (church to mosque) and the Cordoba Cathedral in Spain (mosque to church). To me, this is a fascinating image that is, as Sheraz Arshad, the leader of the Clitheroe Muslim community recognizes, “visually symbolic, the coming together of religions.”

The article relates the legal and political struggles that Mr. Arshad has had to face, who simply wanted to find a home for his community of Believers, hurdles which are testimony to the need for interfaith relationships in the contemporary world. Contrary to the views of so many, not every Muslim is a militant jihadist, just as neither is every Christian a fundamentalist Armageddonist. In fact, in both faiths these particular worldviews are by far the minority, but, being the sensationalist representations that they are, make for easy media fodder and therefore guaranteed to receive the loudest microphones. Indeed, the NY Times story here wouldn’t even BE news if there was no local controversy over the transition of the old church into a mosque.

The story speaks more to the increasing irrelevance of Christianity than it does the spread of jihadism. The fact that the old church had been a factory for 40 years should be more upsetting than its resurrection as a new home for Muslims. Mr. Arshad, a progressive Muslim who is also the facilitator of interfaith relationships in England, is probably more representative not only of his own faith, but of many in the Christian and Jewish traditions as well, than the secular politicians and “Christian” reactionaries who have already begun persecuting the Clitheroe Muslims and their new home, despite Mr. Arshad’s point about not having the daily calls to prayer or a dome, which would “look like a big onion” in Clitheroe.

In view of my call for recognizing common ground in our relationships with our brothers and sisters in various faith traditions, Christians who react negatively over this should re-think the stakes here. Should we prefer that our dying houses of worship leave empty shells around to be converted into mass industry? Or should we be grateful for the fact that there are those who know that our religions and spiritual traditions do have a major impact in the world, regardless of whether we are part of that particular tradition? For myself, I will pick the latter; if we abandon our houses of worship, let someone else worship there. If we have a problem with that, the best way to make a difference is not by complaining about it, but by actually returning to our churches.