Empty churches, full mosques

Redundant churches in Scotland are being converted into mosques as Christian congregations dwindle and Muslims seek places to worship.

Dr Javed Hussain Gill, the secretary of al Furqan mosque, talks to a local resident Sabir Hussain in Glasgow.
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GLASGOW // When the Glasgow Central Mosque, then rivalling the biggest in Europe, opened a quarter of a century ago, it seemed all the needs of Muslim worshippers in Scotland's largest city would be met at its imposing site on the banks of the Clyde.

But as the city's Muslim population has swelled to 33,000, with the Pakistanis who have always formed its main component joined by refugees from conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, demand has continued to grow for space. More than 70 years after organised worship first began, in the homes of Pakistani immigrants, Glasgow has 14 mosques, and some feel it could do with more. It is not difficult to find examples of growth. Across the city, extensive work is under way to expand al Furqan mosque; elsewhere, two other mosques are being modernised. And 80 km to the east, a mosque that opened in January with the express aim of serving English-speaking Muslims in the capital, Edinburgh, chose Ramadan as the occasion to extend worship to Friday prayers.

In their different attempts to cater for Scotland's largest Muslim communities, both al Furqan and the Edinburgh Blackhall mosque also cast light on the steady decline in Christian worship. Increasingly, mosques are being created or expanded in what were Christian premises; al Furqan occupies a building formerly owned by a neighbouring centre for the elderly, run by Christian spiritualists, while the Blackhall mosque has made its home in what was until 2006 a church of the United Free Church of Scotland.

"We find quite often that mosques are opening or extending in what used to be Christian church property," said Dr Javed Hussain Gill, 56, the Pakistan-born secretary of the al Furqan mosque and a teacher of religious studies. "There is a logic to this because churches face Bethlehem which is very close, from here, to facing Mecca." The trend is not confined to Scotland, or indeed to Britain. In the north-western English town of Clitheroe, work is progressing on the conversion of a Methodist church, once captured in a painting by L S Lowry, into "a sanctuary for peace and prayer, and a collaborative environment for the whole community". And in Belgium, the closure of Christian churches has prompted debate on whether disused buildings should be offered to Muslims, many currently worshipping in inadequate or unsafe makeshift premises.

Wherever the phenomenon occurs, opinion is divided on whether finding a continuing use for redundant churches for the pursuit of faith, albeit a different faith, is something to be welcomed in a secular age - or another sign of the erosion of cultural identities. "Within our denomination, I guess there would be varying views," said the Rev John Fulton, general secretary of the United Free Church of Scotland. "Some would be reasonably happy to see a church maintained as a place of worship; others might have reservations."

Reflecting widespread reluctance to speak publicly on such divisions, however, Mr Fulton did not wish "to be drawn into a large discussion of the issue". He described the closure of the Edinburgh church, which opened in the mid-1930s, as a consequence of falling attendances generally. "In the early years, it had a thriving congregation," he said. But numbers had dwindled, from as many as 300 "probably down to the teens, and mostly elderly".

Mr Fulton said: "I suppose it is part of a fairly common trend in which many churches are experiencing declining attendance. I don't believe demographics are involved. There is still quite a large population in the area but for whatever reasons, the church was failing to draw folk in." The grateful new owner of the church is the Edinburgh Pakistan Association, which is two-thirds of the way towards reaching its target of £600,000 (Dh3.56 million) to fund its renovation plans.

At present, simple reuse of the existing church accommodation provides space for 300 male worshippers and 200 women. In the second phase of the project, women will pray on a new mezzanine floor, allowing their current area of the building to become classrooms for Islamic teaching. There are also plans for sporting and cultural groups. "This is an exciting development," said Umar Malik, 22, a law student born in Scotland to Pakistani parents and serves as the mosque's director of operations. "It is run by youth for the youth. A lot of young people are involved, we have a go-ahead young imam who gets on well with them and we had a fantastic response from people in the area, which is predominantly non-Muslim, when we held a neighbourhood welcoming evening."

Non-Muslim neighbours do not always react so well to plans to open or extend mosques. The extent of opposition is sometime exaggerated; the Ribble Valley borough council which approved plans for the Clitheroe mosque insisted that reports of 900 objections were meaningless "because we get just as many when someone wants to add a conservatory". More disturbingly, Scots are thought to be among far-Right demonstrators hoping to stage a march in Glasgow in November. The so-called English Defence League, which claims to oppose not only Muslim extremists but has also demonstrated against new mosque building, is believed by Glaswegian Muslims, and the city's Left, to be treating the occasion as a "coming out" event for its Scottish offshoot.

Residents who have campaigned for several years against proposals for a new mosque at Newton Mearns, just outside Glasgow, deny being anti-Islam but insist the area is unsuitable. At the blog of Osama Saeed, a Scottish National Party campaigner and founder of the Scottish Islamic Foundation, one man identifying himself as Bob Anderson argued that the favoured site was on protected land. He said he would not oppose the building elsewhere, but also admitted to being "selfish" because he wanted a solution that was "good for my family".

The residents' stand has so far paid off; East Renfrewshire, the constituency that includes Newton Mearns, still has no mosque of its own. As he showed The National around al Furqan's basement studios for Radio Ramadan, which broadcast throughout the holy month, Dr Gill said it was important for those seeking to build mosques, or enhance existing ones, to work closely with planning authorities. The design of the dome that will appear on the al Furqan extension was modified to take account of objections.

Dr Gill said the spread of mosques was a product of the need throughout Greater Glasgow for locally based facilities, more practical for day-to-day worship and children's classes. The Central Mosque was an obvious venue for weddings and other large gatherings. Once work at al Furqan is complete, in January, it will be the among the first "green" mosques in the UK, using rainwater, sunlight and solar heating. For a 14-year-old worshipper, Shuayb Bhutta, the prospect of less crowded prayer sessions was also important. His eyes lit up twice during a short conversation: once when asked about his faith - "it means everything to me" - and then when Dr Gill said that in the renovated building, he would be able to use his laptop in a room with wireless internet connection.

As Christian church attendances continue to fall, more church property may transfer to Muslim ownership. "There is sometimes opposition," said Sohaib Saeed, a young volunteer imam and scholar at Cairo's renowned Al Azhar University. "But others appreciate that the buildings are still put to religious use. I remember passing a church that had become a nightclub, seeing people outside with glasses of beer and feeling regretful, not because I thought it should be a mosque but because I wished it had still been a place of worship."