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British Methodists, Muslims, seek understanding

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A UMNS photo by Kathleen LaCamera

Moulana Faruk Ali (left) speaks with the Rev. Doug Smith after a mission presentation on Islam at Hillside Methodist Church in Bolton.
April 17, 2006

By Kathleen LaCamera*

BOLTON, England (UMNS) — The Rev. Doug Smith is grateful for the time his Muslim neighbors and colleagues devoted to him when he worked as an attorney for a Texas-based oil company.

"I spent hours chatting to them about Islam and Christianity and learned to appreciate the Islamic faith," recalls Smith, who now leads four Methodist churches near Bolton in northwest England.

In late March, Smith invited Moulana Faruk Ali to speak about Islam at a districtwide Methodist mission event. He and Ali both serve as chaplains at the Bolton Royal Infirmary, where Smith says Ali has been "waging peace" by making people feel better for the past 17 years.

He hopes that by inviting Ali to talk about his experience as a Muslim, people will get to know there are many sides of Islam.

"We're fighting stereotypes," Smith explains. "I want to show people a more common face of Islam, different from the one that ends up being reported on in the papers."

An hour's drive east of Bolton, in the northern town of Leeds, the Rev. Neil Bishop serves as pastor to Methodist churches in an area called Leeds 11 (a reference to the area's postal code). Three of the four men responsible for the bombings in London last summer came from the Muslim community in this area. Fifty-five people died in the attacks.

"I think the overwhelming feeling was a sense of deep disappointment that the conspiracy was hatched (here) and that the reputation of the area has been dragged through the mud. People feel that if we allow what happened to divide us ... the bombers will have won a small victory," Bishop observes.

Bishop and his colleagues from across the religious community in Leeds have been promoting interfaith dialogue and activities for years. In recent months, a community café has opened catering to a mix of people from many cultural backgrounds. All the food served in the café is "hallal," which means it has been ritually prepared according to Islamic custom.

Long-established interfaith groups for mothers and their children consistently have been popular. Bishop points out that no matter what their cultural background, mothers share similar challenges when it comes to raising children: getting them to bed, learning to potty train them and looking after them properly.

"People meeting together on common ground, taking part in activities, discover common interests and each other's culture," he says.

Patience, commitment

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Web-only photo courtesy of Nicolson Square Methodist Church

At Nicolson Square Methodist Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, participants in an interfaith meeting share food and fellowship.

In the nearby city of Bradford, the Rev. Geoff Reid, a Methodist pastor, has been working with the interfaith team of the Touchstone Centre for 11 and a half years. Last summer, the Christian-Muslim women's group based at Touchstone organized a traditional English "day out" to the seaside. Word came back that Muslim women and children on the trip were surprised to find they were expected to sit on the sand and eat their lunch.

After one of the trip organizers explained "this is what we do (in England)," the group received instructions in sand-pie making and donkey riding, a traditional British seaside activity. A Touchstone newsletter summary of the trip reports that "a grand time was had by all."

"Interfaith work demands a lot of patience and commitment. Eventually you achieve a breakthrough, but not in a hurry," Reid tells United Methodist News Service.

Bradford has been an area where the extreme far-right British National Party, known for its hard-line policies on immigration, has been active for years. Reid believes Touchstone's ministry is "about overcoming fear." Not long after the London bombings, he cautioned the Touchstone community never to underestimate the fear those events generated in Bradford's Muslim communities.

The Rev. Jill Marsh believes part of the job of being Christian, especially in the current political climate, is to encourage Muslims to speak out about their faith.

Marsh leads two Methodist churches in Leicester, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Britain. She also is involved in the newly opened St. Philips Centre, a focus for multi-faith action in Leicester.

Marsh recalls a conversation with a Muslim friend in which he confessed to her that, "I'm sick to death of having to say I'm not fanatical. I am extreme in my passion for God, for my family and for my belief that prayer matters."

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A UMNS photo courtesy of Leeds Methodist Circuit

Standing in front of the Stafford Street Mosque in Beeston, England, members of local churches, including Methodists, join in a vigil in support of local Muslims.

She responded by telling him not to back off from what he believes, but she admits she understands the difficulty of "being yourself" in a culture where the words "Muslim" and "extremist" are often spoken together with negative implications.

In the aftermath of the July 7 bombings, Marsh says she knows people who had their houses searched by police in the middle of the night.

"These are people who have never had things said against them. It's the jobs of Christians to show concern and support for those people. The danger is the evil by a few can escalate into more resentment for others."

Marsh, who is a member of the British Methodist Church's national interfaith relations advisory committee, admits that in the current climate, few are immune from racial stereotyping. She recalls an incident when she was walking her dog in a local park and came upon a group of boys.

"Often, I'm the only white person in the park, and I saw a group of older teens packing up after playing a ball game. I saw two people, one spread-eagle on the ground and the other one bent over the first. I got really stressed and nervous coming up on this scene.

"Then I realized it wasn't two people, but that the boy had laid out his jacket on the ground as a prayer mat and was praying. He finished his prayer, got up, rolled up his jacket and ran off to join the other boys. There I was tense, making assumptions, when someone was praying," she says.

Good neighbors

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A UMNS photo courtesy of Leeds Methodist Circuit

Women and their children gather at the Building Block Centre, an interfaith facility in Leeds, for an event with Christian and Muslim congregations.

Nicolson Square Methodist Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, has found itself the object of racial abuse because of its good relations with the Muslim community. The church is right next door to the city's main Central Mosque and shares a host of activities and initiatives with its Muslim neighbors. In recent months, racist graffiti was sprayed on the church's doors and abusive pamphlets were put through the letterbox. The perpetrators have never been caught.

"This was obviously done by white racists," says the Rev. Frank Whaling, church member and Professor Emeritus of the Study of World Religions at Edinburgh University. "It's obvious that these people don't like faiths coming together. ... As far as we're concerned, it's not nice, but if it serves to bring people together, that's good."

In July, the mosque and the Methodist church, along with support from other Edinburgh faith groups, will send an interfaith Habitat for Humanity team for two weeks to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Republic. Whaling, who also is the president of the Interfaith Association in Edinburgh, says the city is a "key place for interfaith matters."

At the mission event in Bolton, Faruk Ali concluded his presentation on Islam by encouraging the 100-plus audience gathered at the Hillside Methodist Church to ask him questions. One person asked about the real meaning of "jihad," another about Islam's attitude to interfaith marriage, and still another about how Muslims view Jesus.

The Rev. Ann Cash, who brought several parishioners with her to the presentation from a nearby Methodist chapel, said she was glad to hear Ali say suicide bombings are against Islamic teaching. She is impressed with Ali's openness and believes such dialogue is a good way to promote understanding and common ground with people of other faiths.

Judy Merry, a broadcaster and member at Hillside church, believes people in the West are desperately trying to understand Islam. "We appreciate hearing about ordinary Muslim people's basic beliefs."

Ali himself says he was "impressed with the audience," although he had been "a bit worried and nervous" about fulfilling the group's expectations. A hearty round of applause following his talk helped dispel his concerns.

It also helped underscore Ali's conviction that "when you share frankly, openly and encourage understanding, you create peace and harmony and a respect in people's hearts."

*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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