A former church has been taken over and converted to a mosque in a rural North Carolina county, and a group of Christian pastors took part in the conversion ceremony in an effort to “show mutual respect” for their Muslim neighbors.
Crosses have been removed from the former church’s facade and steeple, and mosque leader Ali Muhammad turned them over to the group of pastors.
“What they were attempting to do is honor our tradition and so they wanted to turn the crosses over to us,” said the Rev. Jim Melnyk, pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield, a small town in Johnston County about 45 minutes south of Raleigh. “They were reaching out to us, and we were reaching out to them.”
Melnyk said he was joined by pastors from the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ and three different Baptist congregations at Saturday’s ceremony, which marked the official conversion of a former Pentecostal church into a mosque. One lay person from the local Presbyterian Church was also present for the “celebration.”
Melnyk told WND the mosque had reached out to the local churches through an interfaith group in Raleigh and was hoping to strike a welcoming and respectful tone for the two faiths.
Melnyk said Christianity and Islam “share common origins and scriptures” and that he felt it was the right thing to do to participate in the mosque opening as a show of respect for Islam, a fellow monotheistic faith.
“Christians, Jews and Muslims are all people of the book, and we all claim what the Hebrew Scriptures call the Abrahamic faith,” Melnyk told WND. “We call it the Old Testament, and Muslims also claim the Bible.”
Islam teaches the Bible was corrupted by Jews and Christians and that the Quran was the final, perfected revelation of Allah as given by the Angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad. Melnyk said he is aware of these teachings.
“All of us humans are imperfect. We all struggle and we all look to the divine for inspiration, and we don’t always get it right,” he said.
But, he said despite being “imperfect,” the Islamic faith worships the “same god” as Christianity and Judaism.
Melnyk said he has personally worshiped Allah with Muslims during interfaith gatherings in Raleigh.
The Quran teaches that Jesus was not the Son of God and did not die on a cross to save humanity from sin. In fact, the Quran teaches Jesus faked his death on the cross, when one of his followers died in his place. In the mainstream of Islamic doctrine, Jesus will return in the last days to “break the crosses” and convert the world’s Christians to Islam, by force if necessary.
But Melnyk said he would not be deterred by any of these doctrinal differences.
“We run a danger when we paint any faith tradition with a broad brush,” he said. “I don’t know that faking his death on a cross is a belief held by everyone in Islam. I do know they see Jesus very differently than we do; they see him as a prophet, not the Son of God. And like other monotheistic faiths, they are challenged by the doctrine of the Trinity. I would challenge any Christian theologian to define the mystery of what we call the Trinity. It’s just a doctrine that is in many ways incomprehensible. We all struggle with it.
“Obviously I’m a Christian, and I would not live comfortably within the full teachings of Islam, but I can recognize where we share teachings, and recognize the call to treat one another mercifully, and as the one God treats us mercifully, and that translates equally into Christianity as well as it does Islam.”
The mosque purchased the former church building on four acres for $230,000.
Not all Christians are buying the interfaith sentiments expressed by Melnyk and the other pastors who participated in the mosque conversion ceremony.
“Similar origins?” asks an incredulous Ralph Sidway, author of the book “Facing Islam” and a blog by the same name. “Common origins and scriptures? Dhimmitude and ignorance have kissed each other.”
“This pathetic, deceived ‘pastor’ should be severely reprimanded by his bishop, if not defrocked and excommunicated for deceiving his flock and denying Christ in such a blatant manner,” Sidway, who is Orthodox Christian, writes in his blog. “Read my book Facing Islam for a clear explanation of why the ‘Same God Heresy’ (which this pastor Jim Melnyk undoubtedly follows) presents a ‘different gospel,’ a ‘different Jesus’ and a ‘different Spirit’ (cf. Galatians 1:6-8 and 2 Corinthians 11:3-4).”
A growing Muslim community in rural eastern North Carolina
Ali Mohammed, born in Venezuela to Palestinian parents, told the News & Observer he arrived in Smithfield 20 years ago and is now president of the local Islamic organization that is opening the new mosque. At that time, the local Muslim community consisted of three or four families. It has grown steadily since, and he expects the mosque membership to be around 60.
“Part of it is destiny; it’s the will of God that we’re here and we’ve done well,” Mohammad told the N&O.
“We’re Americans,” Mohammad added. “This is my land, this is my right as an American. If a Christian or a Jew or any other culture has the right to have some kind of community center, why not us? … My faith is peaceful. It teaches us to love our neighbor and be friendly with everyone. That’s what religion teaches us.”
As a historian of Islam and a Christian, Timothy Furnish told WND he can see two sides to this touchy issue, even though the Raleigh newspaper only covered the one side that is politically correct.
“Christians are to be welcoming to strangers in a strange land and we are called on to love all, equally; however, these pastors, especially the Episcopal priest – unsurprisingly, knowing the ECUSA’s obsession with ‘open-mindedness’ and ecumenism – are being kind as doves but forgetting the wise as serpents part of Christ’s instructions in Matthew 10:16,” Furnish told WND.
Sam Rohrer, president and founder of the American Pastors Network, said there are many lessons to be learned from the North Carolina mosque conversion.
“The logical question should be this: What would the Bible say about this? What does the Bible say about bidding God-speed to those who oppose the Bible and even more so to those who teach the submission or death to all those who refuse to bow the knee to Allah and Muhammad?” Rohrer told WND. “The Bible is clear.”
A sign of submission?
Turning over a former church to be made into a mosque is, historically and theologically, seen by Muslims as proof that their religion is superior to Christianity and, in fact, as part of their destiny as adherents of Islam, Furnish said.
The Middle East is full of churches and synagogues turned into Islamic sites, such as the Umayyad in Damascus, the Ibn Tulun in Cairo and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. In Hebron and on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Muslim conquerors built their sites atop the Jewish ones.
Likewise, in post-Christina Europe, hundreds of churches and synagogues have been converted to mosques in recent years. But the phenomenon is only just beginning in the U.S.
In 2010, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Syracuse Landmark Preservation Board agreed to a plan to convert the landmark Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Syracuse, New York, into a mosque.
Mohammad, the mosque leader in Smithfield, said Saturday’s service would feature readings from the Quran and the Bible and remarks from members of both faiths.
“This imam may mouth soothing words about all just getting along, but the symbolism of Islam triumphant is just being reinforced,” Furnish said. “Most disturbing is a joint Christian-Muslim ‘service,’ which includes readings from the Bible and Quran. Any Christian priest of pastor who participates in such is deluded.”
Furnish said he doubts the joint “service” included any of the passages of the Quran such as Sura IV:171, which denies and condemns the Trinity. Or Sura IV:157, which denies that Christ died on the cross.
“We Christians in America can be welcoming to Muslims without going overboard and pretending that our faith and Islam are virtually the same – or that both are equally valid paths to salvation,” he said.
But Melnyk is not concerned about any backlash from the joint service or his accommodating remarks about Islam as equally valid with Christianity.
“Christianity is meant to be hard, to challenge you to go into the tough places. I see this as a very positive thing, and if anyone is hurt or offended by it I challenge them to read the gospels a little more closely.
“My job is not to judge whether another faith tradition is right or wrong but to live as well as I can within the faith tradition I belong, and for that I’m a Christian,” he added. “The reality is, I can only judge by the folks I have come to know in Johnston County and in Raleigh, where we have come together in union and we have not proselytized one another, and, in fact, we have had meaningful worship together.”