A former Pentecostal church in the small North Carolina town of Smithfield became a mosque on Saturday.
Mosque organizer Ali Mohammad told the Raleigh News & Observer that there are plans for a worship and community center and a school.
Smithfield is located in a rural county in the center of the state that is predominantly Christian. 1950s American film star Ava Gardner was born near Smithfield, which is now the location of the Ava Gardner Museum.
Local Christian leaders were invited to a ceremony at the new Islamic Center of Smithfield on Saturday, where mosque organizers planned to give them crosses removed from the building’s steeple and facade.
“We want to be friendly with all our neighbors and let them know we’re there,” said Mohammad, describing Islam as a “peaceful” religion that “teaches us to love our neighbor and be friendly with everyone.” As in most mainstream news stories featuring similar claims about the nature of Islam, Mohammad’s description was left unchallenged by the News & Observer despite continuing acts of violence around the world committed in the name of Islam and the persecution of Christian communities in the Middle East to the point of near extinction.
Pastor Jim Melnyk of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield was one of the church leaders planning to participate in Saturday’s ceremony.
“I see it as an important statement of community, that we take each other’s faiths seriously,” Melnyk told the News & Observer. “I want to acknowledge how important it is to build bridges in the community when we’re living in a time that is so anxiety ridden and there’s so much mistrust going on in the world around us. It’s important when we can find common ground and share our community.”
Melnyk continued, “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.”
On social media, critics lamented the change. “They have a established a beachhead,” read one comment on Facebook. “We are losing our religion to Islam.”
Saturday’s ceremony was to feature readings from the Koran and the Bible and remarks from people of both faiths.
When Mohammad moved to Smithfield 20 years ago from Florida, there were only about three or four Muslim families in the area. The community has since grown to the point that he expects the mosque to have around 60 members.
Mohammad, who was born in Venezuela to Jerusalem-born parents, said the families include business owners, doctors and engineers, some of whom have relocated from out of state.
While there have been other cases of churches in the U.S. becoming mosques, the practice is not as prevalent as in Europe, which has a much greater Muslim population and where Muslim leaders talk openly of their ambition to turn churches and synagogues into mosques, replicating a pattern that took place long ago as Islam grew in the Middle East.
Muslims in Europe have also opened numerous mosques in new buildings. Britain today has 1,700 mosques and officially has 100 sharia courts.
Europe has seen church closings in recent years not only as a result of the rise of Islam but also growing secularism. Some have become private homes, bars, stores and gyms.