Why Are Christians So Upset Over Muslim Prayers at a Christian Church?

A recent skirmish over a Muslim service at the National Cathedral raises questions about sacred space.

It was quite something, all of those beautiful, colorful prayer rugs strewn about the floor in the east transept of the National Cathedral recently. They looked as if they belonged there, picking up the dazzling hues from the sun streaming through the stained glass windows. The sounds, too, were lovely, especially the haunting invocation — Allaaahhhh — echoing between the massive stone columns from the imam who conducted the first Muslim worship service (Jumuah) at the National Cathedral.

It was stunning to see the several hundred or so Muslims who attended, shoeless, on their knees, bent over, bowing at the Friday call to prayer. It all just seemed so right, this welcoming from what is, after all, our National Cathedral. People praying for peace. What could be better than that?

Ah, but the pushback. When the story first broke in the Washington Post that the first Muslim service would be held at the Cathedral, the crazies came out in full force. Calls, letters, emails, threats. How dare the Cathedral open its doors to these people?

Because of the protests, the Cathedral tightened its security. Bags were checked; it was closed to the public.

Yet, as the South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool began his sermon (Khutba), a well dressed blonde, Christine Weick, 50, from Michigan, emerged from the crowd, shouting, “Jesus Christ died on that cross! He is the reason we are to worship only Him! Jesus is our Lord and Savior!” Several people came and escorted her out as she continued her rant: “We have built . . . allowed you your mosques in this country! Why don’t you worship in your mosques and leave our churches alone? We are a country founded on Christian principles!”

When you live with this kind of bigotry every day, it takes more to faze you than one deranged woman.

Ambassador Rasool barely batted an eye. He kept right on with his sermon as if nothing had happened, as did the worshippers. When you live with this kind of bigotry every day, it takes more to faze you than one deranged woman.

Interspersed with quotes from the Qu’ran, Rasool gave an impassioned rebuke to “extremists from the house of Islam who appropriate our religion, our language and symbols.” He went on to say, “This is not the time for platitudes, because mischief is threatening the world. . . . They invade lands, behead journalists, execute civilians and declare war on anyone different to them.” He could not have been more sympathetic or conciliatory to Christians, even saying, “We are here to say that the danger and insecurity faced by Christians and other minority religions in the Middle East cannot be tolerated.”

This was not good enough for the likes of Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham. “It’s sad to see a church open its doors to the worship of anything other than the One True God of the Bible who sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth to save us from our sins,” said Graham on his Facebook account.

Conservative columnist Diana West, in a screed against the service said, “The Episcopal Church blindly, blithely thinks the Cathedral’s Islamic service ‘demonstrates an appreciation of one another’s prayer tradition.’”

But the dean of the Cathedral, Rev. Gary Hall spoke that day of St. Benedict who, in teaching a life of prayer and hospitality, believed Christianity was pragmatic, not ideological. And he referred to the Muslim prayers as “a beautiful and sacred language in a beautiful and sacred space.”

Having the Muslim service in the Cathedral “was a no brainer for me” Hall said, and he was surprised at the backlash. He said the Cathedral switchboard had never seen anything like it — even worse than when he declared his approval of same sex weddings and gun control. “It seems there was an orchestrated evangelical response,” he said. “We had hundreds of angry phone calls. They called me an infidel and a blasphemer. I considered it a badge of honor, like being on Nixon’s enemies list.”

Though the service was seen as pretty radical in some quarters, that’s not what Hall intended. “I thought it would be a comfort food thing,” he said. “Not a stick in the eye.”

Hall believes it is important to continue these prayer services and to keep educating the public about Islam. He thinks the sound and the space was worth the whole thing. “It was a transcendental moment,” he said. They did get plenty of positive feedback, including from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Rasool says that the service was also praised in his home country. But he has had negative feedback here, mostly from Christians. As for Muslim leaders around the world, he says “there has been no response from officialdom.” Rasool finds it “embarrassing and extremely painful that we cannot get our heartland to be as generous to Christians and Jews,” but he says the Muslim extremists have also been surprisingly quiet. “They do not know how to respond to the sermon, because where I could, I quoted the Qu’ran. They have been a lot more muted than has been some of the Christian feedback.”

Rasool’s new goal is to have Christian worship services at a mosque. “We could do what the Prophet of Islam did,” he says, “allowing Christians to pray in his mosque while he was there.” He knows that won’t be easy, but he’d like to establish the same “comfort zone” in the mosque that was established at the Cathedral.

Shouldn’t something be sacred because you believe it to be? And if you believe it to be, how can anyone take that away from you?

While we spoke of the controversy, Hall mentioned to me that “people are funny about sacred space.” That’s putting it mildly. But as I thought about this piece, I wondered, What exactly is a sacred space?

Most of us think of places of worship as sacred spaces. That goes without saying. But also, ever since the time of cavemen, people have had sacred spaces — spaces made sacred by the beliefs that people have in them.

For the Muslims who prayed at the National Cathedral that Friday, the Cathedral was a sacred space. But it was also a Christian sacred space, and there have been Jewish rituals there too. As an Army brat, I know that the military has non-denominational chapels where people of different faiths pray at different times. Those people can turn those spaces into their own idea of what is sacred.

I have a place on the water in Southern Maryland where there was once an Indian village. I built a labyrinth on what the local archeologists told me was Indian sacred ground. When I walk up to that space, I sometimes feel it is almost vibrating with spirituality. Other people get nothing from it. Is a sacred space sacred before it is consecrated, or only afterwards? If it is destroyed, is the land sacred? Is a mountaintop sacred? The ocean?

I feel my dining room table, lit with candles, filled with guests and good food and good wine is sacred. Shouldn’t something be sacred because you believe it to be? And if you believe it to be, how can anyone take that away from you?

That is why I’m so baffled at those who would take offense — rather than be honored — that others could see the sacred in their space. What is sacred space to you? Why not invite others into it, and show them some hospitality?

Image courtesy of Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com.

Sally Quinn
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  • GraceGuerilla

    It’s a cheap and uneducated shot to dismiss the woman protestor as a ‘bigot’. She shouted her truth from the Bible – that doesn’t make it ‘bigotry’. This is an article devoid of any real understanding of religious difference. If the author knew a scrap, they’d understand why it’s so important to keep a Christian sacred space, sacred to Christian Faith…and likewise for other religions. Rather bizarre, biased and uneducated piece.

    • http://www.realliberalchristianchurch.org/ Tom Usher

      I agree.

      • cken

        I would say it is you two who lack understanding.

        • GraceGuerilla

          Perhaps so…I don’t claim to be a theologian. What concerns me is that we increasingly slap the term ‘bigot’ on to every opinion we find disagreeable. That’s not a healthy or sensible way to have a discussion. She may have tackled it the wrong way, but the woman protestor absolutely had a right to voice her opinion. We might not like it, but it’s not ‘bigotry’.

          • cken

            I agree with you that the term bigot has become a cliche but in truth all of us have some degree of bigotry, bias, or prejudice within us against some group or other. It is simply human nature. think about this, if we can share the joy one of our churches brings us with another religion are not we the ones who are uplifted rather than diminished. Is it better to think one of our “holy” places has been desecrated and that that should supersede the love and joy we have for our fellow man. When we can show people the way the truth and the life by sharing what we have; shouldn’t we? To be honest there was a part of me whose initial reaction was let them use their own d— mosque, but upon further reflection I realized that was selfish, exclusive, and wrong and really not Christian. Historically there was some radical cult leader, more commonly known as Jesus the Christ, who would desecrate the occasional synagogue.

          • GraceGuerilla

            Absolutely, we do all have bias or an ‘ism’ of some kind in our nature. However, although Jesus ransacked the sy show, he did it because they had turned it into a marketplace and he was angry at the idolatry. I am all for sharing the message of Jesus for whoever wants to hear it, but allowing other religions to use that space to worship their god, with their customs and beliefs…that’s a step too far. Going back to OT times, God had a lot to say when the Israelites intermingled customs and practices with other religions – in fact it was punishable by death in some cases. Truth is, Jesus himself said that He was the way, the truth and the life and that no one could get to the Father except by Him. Using the words of Jesus as a guide, that would indicate other religions are therefore false? So why mingle what is false with what is true? Just for the record, we absolutely should reach out to the community around us, show grace and acceptance to other faiths…but that’s not the same thing.

          • cken

            Our God is also their God. God by any other name whether Allah, Vishnu, or Jehovah is still God. The intermingled customs you refer to are old testament many of which had a more practical basis than religious. I expect there will be Hindus, Buddhist, and whatever as well as Christians in what we refer to as heaven. I say that because God judges the heart (using its metaphysical or spiritual meaning) not the ritual you subscribe to. Many shall be born again in the new kingdom and see the one father the one God who is above all through all and within you.

          • GraceGuerilla

            Ah, that is where we shall disagree. :) I (personally) feel that the ‘my God is their god’ is more akin to universalism that Christianity. If Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father *except* by me’ and I class myself as a follower of Christ, then I have to accept what He said.

            I say this with respect, but I don’t believe that all paths lead to God.

          • cken

            I understand your position, and certainly it is commendable. But, if you limit yourself to the gospels selected for the Bible what Jesus taught is little different from what religions had taught for thousands of years. Even the death and resurrection of a god here on earth was not a new concept. There was Mithra about 300bc. There was Osiris and Krishna way before that. Then of course we have Elijah and Enoch taken up into “heaven” alive. My point is many of the essential teachings of religions haven’t changed for over the many thousands of years we know about. Some of the rituals and presentations of the concepts have changed to be understood by the various cultures of the era.

          • GraceGuerilla

            Yes, I remember looking into that, but the God who appears in the OT and through Jesus in the NT, is (to me) the true and living God. I can’t argue philopsopy with someone who knows more than I do, but I know the difference that God makes to my life. He’s at the very middle of my middle – He’s my hope when the world around me falls apart. It’s not about culture or religious practice to me, it’s about knowing Him.

          • cken

            Very good. I concur knowing Him is all that matters. It is always good to encounter someone with a deep and abiding faith. Thank you for the chat. Merry Christmas

    • T_Ford

      Absolutely.

  • Christopher Johnson

    Sally? How many Christian churches are there in Saudi Arabia? How many times have Muslims invited Christians into that “sacred space and shown them some hospitality?”

    Seriously, Sally. You really need to learn about this stuff before you comment on it. Otherwise, you come off as a complete idiot.

    • ron_goodman

      So because the Saudis act like dicks, Americans should too?

  • cken

    A church is simply a building. There is nothing sacred about it. It is people who go there to practice a ritual that is sacred to them which can make any place sacred. If the Baptists have a worship service at a Jewish synagogue does that somehow taint the synagogue. Come on people grow up, evolve, get over your antiquated mythological eccentricities. I am not talking about getting over your faith, please keep that, whatever it is. Lose some of the stupid notions like my church is bigger, better, prettier, and therefor more sacred than yours. Mankind has been seeking to understand “God” and have a better life after death for many thousands of years and no man-made dogma is more right than another.

    • GraceGuerilla

      I think I disagree. Many churches (mine included) think of church as a place to experience the presence of God. Yes, He’s everywhere and I don’t have to be in a church to pray…but at the same time, there’s something so beautiful about walking into a 200 year old building, looked at the stained glass which tells the Bible story and kneeling at an altar worn by thousands of knees, who have been there to pray to the living God of the Bible, the one who Jesus came to point us to. That’s an incredibly precious and special thing and introducing another religion into that, just doesn’t make sense.

      If you believe that all paths lead to God, then it may be a logical conclusion. But most people of faith don’t believe that. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but I believe what Jesus said.

  • Ray

    Those pesky Christians. They’ve always been so intolerant of other peoples’ ‘gods’. They wouldn’t even join with the open-minded ancient Romans in praying to their panoply of deities. Can you imagine purposely avoiding going into all those beautiful temples back then? Why couldn’t they just relax and enjoy all the ‘sacred spaces?’ Brother!

    • nwcolorist

      Some people are so “open minded” that their brains have fallen out.

      • T_Ford

        In a similar vein, I’ve said that there are those who are so open-minded that it’s down right drafty up there!

  • Matthew Kilburn

    When the Christian Eucharist is celebrated within the confines of a Mosque, when the walls of that mosque are adorned with the ingredients of Christian Worship, then we can talk.

  • nwcolorist

    It’s troubling when anyone feels the need to resort to name-calling and personal insults. I’ve done it on occasion, and it almost always shuts down the lines of honest communication. The fact that Ms. Quinn, as the founding editor of OnFaith, wrote this piece is somewhere between strange and bizarre. It represents a serious ignorance of the basic tenets of Christianity and a lack of respect for those with opposing beliefs.

    This misunderstanding of the Christian faith may explain the large number of articles on atheism and anti-fundamentalist attitudes that have run here in the past, although recently the balance has evened out.

    Ms. Quinn certainly has a right to air her views, but this article doesn’t add anything to either her or OnFaith’s reputation.

    • GraceGuerilla

      Absolutely…completely agree. If the author understood the true heart of Christianity (or many religions) she would understand why it’s so important to many to keep a sacred place, a sacred place. You would simply never see a Synagogue inviting Christians in to worship Jesus, or a mosque encouraging the book of common prayer to be read. It doesn’t happen, because for people of faith, there are usually firmly held beliefs about appropriate places to worship.

  • Carstonio

    Quinn is mistaken. This alleged controversy isn’t about the principle sacred spaces at stake here. It’s about the Fox Newsification of American evangelicalism, where anything that smacks of religious pluralism is wrongly equated with persecution of Christians. More manufactured outage like the “war on Christmas.” The “founded on Christian principles” falsehood encapsulates the thinking, where they seek to marginalize religious minorities while clinging to the martyr myth that they’re being marginalized themselves.