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Former Methodist chapel becomes mosque

By Kathleen LaCamera*
May 1, 2007 |  CLITHEROE, England (UMNS)

Muslims in Clitheroe, England, have received planning approval to convert Mt. Zion Methodist Chapel into a mosque. A UMNS Web-only photo courtesy of the Clitheroe Methodist Circuit.

After years of searching for a place to worship, Muslims in the northern English town of Clitheroe have won planning permission to transform a former Methodist chapel into a mosque.

Local Methodists and other faith groups have been among the mosque’s supporters, standing alongside their Muslim neighbors as they faced vocal opposition and even racial abuse from those who campaigned against the proposed mosque.

"This is a basic issue of human rights," said the Rev. Christopher Cheeseman, superintendent minister of the Clitheroe Methodist Circuit. "These are people of faith who wish to find a place to worship."

The closest mosque is a 20-mile round trip from Clitheroe. For years the Muslim community -- which numbers 300 of the town’s 15,000 inhabitants -- has met at the Medina Islamic Education Center located in one of Clitheroe’s small "terraced" or row houses.

The recently approved plans for the Community Partnership Center on the former Mt. Zion Methodist Church site will include a mosque, space for community activities and an interfaith center. The church officially closed its doors in 1940 when it merged with other local Methodist congregations. Since then, the building had been used as a munitions depot during World War II and a factory for a number of different businesses until recently when the Medina Islamic Education Center bought the property.

"This is a basic issue of human rights. These are people of faith who wish to find a place to worship."
- The Rev. Christopher Cheeseman

Less than 300 yards away from the Mt. Zion site is another former Methodist chapel that now houses The Emporium wine bar, a transformation that seems to have bothered few in this middle-class market town. It’s an irony not lost on Cheeseman, who wrote letters in support of the mosque application to every member of the council planning committee.

Fanning flames of hatred

Cheeseman and fellow Methodists, along with other local Christians, Jews and Buddhists, have made it their business to counter the efforts of the far-right British National Party in Clitheroe. Many feel the party has exploited divisions in this community over the new mosque, deliberately fanning the flames of racial hatred for their own political gain.

During local elections in 2003, British National Party campaign fliers depicted the town dominated by a domed mosque with minarets, even though the new mosque and community center plans contain no alterations to the exterior of the church building.

The Rev. Inderjit Bhogal prays during an interfaith vigil in Leeds, England. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Yorkshire and Humber Faiths’ Forum.

The Rev. Dale Barton, interfaith officer for the Lancashire Churches Together organization, said the basic right to religious freedom is at stake in Clitheroe. He recalled attending an independent inquiry about the mosque application where openly racist insults were directed against local Muslims. Deeply disturbed by what he saw and heard, Barton said it was "the most racist meeting I’ve been to in my entire life."

A spokesperson for the local council told United Methodist News Service the council had received a number of letters opposed to the mosque proposal that were so racist and offensive they couldn’t be made public.

Yet in a decision that surprised everyone, including the Muslim community, the mosque got its planning permission.

"To be honest, we were resigned to the fact that we would fail as we had all those times before," said Sheraz Arshad, secretary of the Medina Islamic Education Center.

Efforts toward partnership

Born in Clitheroe, Arshad is a 31-year-old project manager for British Aerospace and a key player in the effort to build the Community Partnership Center. He grew up watching his father and other community leaders work hard but ultimately fail to establish a mosque here. His father died in 2000.

Arshad said he is "humbled by the support, understanding and empathy from the Methodist community" and other faith groups that have supported local Muslims during this difficult process.

"It was really amazing to experience people who understand what it is for another community to want a place of worship, understand where that need comes from and then go all out to help us achieve that," Arshad said.

A wine bar called The Emporium operates on the site of a former Methodist chapel in Clitheroe, England.

These experiences have made the Clitheroe Muslim community even more resolved to continue to reach out across the cultural and religious divide, he said.

"As a result of this process we realize there’s a lot of ignorance and bigotry out there. We want to act as champions for interfaith cooperation," he said. "Our faith teaches that we should work for the betterment of the whole community. We want to give the wider community a place to come and share."

Supporters of the new mosque and community center know they face continuing challenges. The former Mt. Zion Methodist Church building even now bears marks of recent vandalism and fire bomb attacks.

Encouraged by support

The Rev. Inderjit Bhogal, a past president of the Methodist Church and former government adviser on issues of racial equality, said he is encouraged by Clitheroe Methodists’ support for the new mosque.

"This situation facilitated relationships that brought people of different faiths together," he said. "Whenever that happens, I feel that is within God’s purposes."

Bhogal, who directs an interfaith forum in the Yorkshire and Humber region of England, also applauded Clitheroe’s faith community for standing up to extremist elements, such as the British National Party. As local elections approach in May, he hopes Christians will challenge candidates to be advocates for all members of their communities.

"People need to ask local politicians about their vision for their community," he said. "Is it one that embraces all of the community? Is it a Britain where we all belong? These are the kinds of questions we Christians need to raise."

*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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