A former Pentecostal Church in rural North Carolina was turned into an Islamic center on Saturday where an Episcopal priest and pastors from other denominations took part in a joint service to dedicate the facility.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported Friday that while the Islamic Center of Smithfield is not the first to exist in Johnston County, it's currently the only one in the area after another mosque was closed. The new Islamic Center is now housed is what once was the Pentecostals of Smithfield church building.
On Saturday, local Christian leaders took part in a joint service at the new Islamic Center of Smithfield, which has a population of just over 10,000, where passages from the Bible and Quran were read.
Episcopal Priest Jim Melynk said he saw it as an "important statement that we take each other's faith seriously," citing the common origins and similarities the two faiths share.
"I see it as an important statement of community, that we take each other's faiths seriously. 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," Melynk added.
Ali Muhammad, a local Muslim who was born in Venezuela and whose parents are from Jerusalem, helped organize the service and said he believes it was God's will that he and his community are there.
"Part of it is destiny; it's the will of God that we're here and we've done well," he said, adding that he's not concerned about backlash in town.
The last mosque in Johnston County was located in nearby Selma — population around 6,000 — but reportedly closed following a string of break-ins and the imam moved away to start a mosque elsewhere. The Muslim community in Smithfield has grown from just a few families to around 60, the News & Observer noted.
"We're Americans," Mohammad said. "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?"
The Islamic faith, he said, is "peaceful" and teaches to love one's neighbors and be friendly to everyone. The Islamic center's leaders have removed the crosses that sat atop the vacant church's steeple and on the building's facade and have said they will give them to local Christian leaders as an act of good faith.
Melynk said that he wanted the public to recognize the ceremony and that he had no reservations participating in it, mentioning a recent dedication of a local bridge where faith leaders of every kind were present.
"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," he said.