A tale of two mosques

By Jonathan Bartley
March 10, 2010

Seeing the report today in the Times about church leaders in Camberley who have joined together to protest against plans for a mosque near the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, I was reminded of a similar situation which was handled rather differently by a group of Christians in a rather more tense situation in Northern Ireland.

It involved a friend and colleague of Ekklesia, a Mennonite pastor, Tim Foley. It was reported at the time by the Belfast Telegraph.

Churches in Craigavon - Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Catholics included - got together, developed dialogue with the Muslims, and in many respects became their advocates in the face of local opposition and tension.

It was quite a different approach to the one which seems to have been taken by churches in Camberley, where one minister has reportedly described the Mosque plans as a “supremacist statement” for Islam.

The two situations have their differences - in Craigavon the original request seemed to be for a mosque, but in the end it was for an Islamic centre - but in many respects in the situation in Northern Ireland the stakes were far higher. But above all it highlights how there are two responses which church can make in these kinds of situations. They can either be peacemakers and reconcilers or they can be agitators.

Tim had this to say in 2004: "It offends me that churches don't take reconciliation more seriously.

"Church leaders need to start asking hard questions about why church attendance is falling and recognise that we are part of the problem and not part of the answer."

[Update 9.09am 11 March: A friend who attends church and works in the area has given me this update: "As far as I am aware, the comments in the Times are acurate - there is an earlier article from the local paper here. The Churches Together people made quite a lot of positive working together type comments but the press have majored on the negative. Indeed the local churches provided worship space in their halls for the muslim community up to 1996 when the local Catholic diocese sold them the building.

"From a totally unscientific point of view of the people I work with pretty well everybody doesn't have a problem with the muslim community having a purpose built mosque, the issue is that they want to knock down the old school - sadly I think the Bengali Welfare Association have misjudged the strong attachment that a lot of the locals have to their old school building (was a primary school right up to 1996 when the local Catholic diocese sold it to eh Bengali Welfare Association). Indeed a colleague will quite happily list off several sites, including the old Robin's Cinema pretty well straight over the road that has been derelict for about five years that he thinks would be more suitable.

"What doesn't help is that the local council bungled the application pretty spectacularly. The planning officers recommended refusal on the grounds that the building is locally listed and in a conservation area, and then the planning committee approved it, then the planning department messed up the next part of the process resulting in it having to go around again.

"There is a good deal of misinformation floating around too - Sandhurst withdrew their objections after it transpired that the minarets are just for show - and if any terrorists wanted to spy on the academy they need only go pretty well next door and climb the tower of St Michael's Church which has a panoramic view of the academy site. There is also of course the BNP and EDL who have been stirring things up."

The Telegraph have an update this morning, reporting that the application has been refused]

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