|Former Methodist chapel becomes mosque|
By Kathleen LaCamera*
May 1, 2007 | CLITHEROE, England (UMNS)
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.
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.
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
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’
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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