March 25, 2017


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New life for old church as mosque

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/10/2015 (518 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

AN abandoned historic church in Winnipeg's North End might get a new lease on life -- as a mosque.

The former St. Giles Presbyterian Church on Burrows Avenue has been empty since spring, ever since the previous owner, Bethlehem Aboriginal Fellowship, moved to a smaller location.

But before a group of local Muslims can buy the building, which dates to 1908, they will need the city to lift its historical designation so they can make changes.

If the designation is lifted, and the sale goes through, it will be one of several Canadian churches that have recently been converted into mosques.

In August, the Lincoln Road United Church in Windsor, Ont., was sold to the Masjid Noor-Ul-Islam Madressa and Cultural Centre. In Sydney, N.S., the Holy Redeemer church hall was sold to a group of Muslim families. Meanwhile, one of the oldest mosques in Toronto, the 46-year-old Jami Mosque, is located in the former High Park Presbyterian Church.

This situation is not unique to Canada. In Europe, declining attendance has resulted in the closure of many churches; at the same time, a growing Muslim population is in need of places to pray. Throughout Europe, many of these empty churches are being sold to Muslim groups.

This is not a new phenomenon. One of the earliest conversions happened in 705 in Damascus, when a church dedicated to John the Baptist became the Grand Mosque, also known as the Umayyad Mosque. And the Hagia Sophia in present-day Istanbul had existed for about 1,000 years as a church before it was converted into a mosque in 1453 following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Other churches in the Middle East and Spain were also turned into places for Islamic worship in centuries past.

That's ancient history; for some people today, the recent conversions are an unhappy turn of events. In 2014, a petition against it was launched in England. "Old English churches are being converted into mosques at an alarming rate," it stated. "When this happens we lose our culture, heritage and traditions."

In France, more than 40,000 people signed a Hands Off my Church petition this summer against selling churches to Muslims to be turned into mosques.

But others are glad to see the venerable buildings saved from destruction and serving a useful purpose. "This is one of the greatest things I've heard so far," said Archbishop Vincent Waterman in Sydney. "As a prayer centre, I welcome it."

"Their religion is different than ours, but it's still going to be used as a house of God," said Ross Mitton of Windsor. "So we were OK with that."

When it comes to converting sacred sites, Islam isn't unique. Christianity has a rich history in this regard, too.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, when missionaries Christianized Europe, one of the common practices was to convert pagan shrines. One of the earliest stories about this involves St. Boniface. As recounted by Bamber Gascoigne in his book, The Christians, Boniface marched into a pagan shrine in Germany where people worshipped a massive oak tree dedicated to Thor, the god of thunder. Using an axe, he cut it down and used the wood to build a chapel to St. Peter.

These days, however, the conversion is going the other way. As Canadian Christianity experiences a profound upheaval, churches are emptying. Many of them are older and historic; they are often located in the urban cores of Canadian cities. Unless someone steps up to buy, fix and repurpose them, they are in danger of becoming derelict and torn down.

So when they are converted to mosques, it's a win-win situation. Not only can Muslims in need of places to worship find inexpensive space -- the former St. Giles was listed for $150,000, although it needs additional renovations -- the current owners get out from under a financial burden.

The other winner is the rest of us, as we see historic churches revitalized, repaired and repurposed.


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