LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Leaders at the Islamic Center of Fullerton, a growing congregation in Orange County, feared they would go a second year without gathering in person for Eid-al-Fitr prayers that mark the end of Ramadan.
Normally, they’d host Eid prayers at a gym in a nearby park, but the pandemic posed challenges for the mosque, which operates out of a small office space, to offer accommodations for the estimated 500 or so expected to show up Thursday (May 13) for the celebration. The leaders sought city and private spaces to no avail.
The situation seemed bleak until Faisal Qazi, a member of the mosque, thought to approach clergy at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church, a parish known be involved in interfaith work and helping the unhoused. Qazi had previously helped sponsor a food drive there, so he introduced leaders of the Islamic center to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dennis Kriz.
Mohammad Raghib, the mosque’s president, said they asked Kriz about hosting Eid at the parish’s campus. The pastor was on board, running it by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. Soon after, Raghib’s congregation was cleared to gather outdoors at the church.
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To local Islamic leaders, this marks a historic Eid, as they’ll be able to pray with each other amid a pandemic and “in the vicinity of our Christian brothers and sisters,” said Imam Qaisar Waheed Shabir. For Catholic clergy, this partnership is “in the spirit of interfaith cooperation,” Kriz said.
Shabir said it’s “an honor and a privilege” to host prayers at a Christian church, especially at a time when “Muslims have been very badly maligned.”
As an imam, it isn’t lost on Shabir that he represents a Vietnamese Cham Muslim community that established the Islamic Center of Fullerton decades ago. It means that much more that the mosque will be coexisting with the Catholic Church amid a rise of incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the wake of COVID-19.
“It’s a wonderful way of looking at how we should all live in tolerance of one another,” Shabir said.
St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church is part of the Fullerton Interfaith Ministerial Association, which Kriz said includes Protestant churches, a local Jewish temple and the Islamic Center of Fullerton.
Congregants of the mosque will use the church space by the basketball courts in the back of the parish grounds for their service. For Kriz, the space is meaningful because it’s where parishioners gathered for worship inside a temporary tent after a fire struck the church two decades ago. Before setting up the tent, other churches stepped up to help the congregation host Mass, he said.
It’s also a space that about 30 unhoused people used as a sleeping grounds a couple years ago and where congregants have held the Stations of the Cross procession, the Good Friday tradition that reenacts the crucifixion of Jesus.
“Now, it’s going to be used for this prayer service,” Kriz said.
Kriz thought back to early 2020, when Rabbi Nico Socolovsky of Fullerton’s Temple Beth Tikvah went to the parish to give talks about being “partners with God,” just before COVID-19 struck the nation.
“Now, we’re having our Muslim brothers and sisters here, just as COVID is coming to an end. It makes for an interesting bookend,” Kriz said.
The pastor said he has encouraged his parishioners to attend.
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During Ramadan, members of the Islamic Center of Fullerton have broken fast in the parking lot of the office space where they congregate, which Raghib said “is good enough for us.” But he is excited about hosting Eid at the church because he said it’s also an opportunity to share food with the parish community and “learn about each other and mingle.”
Raghib said they will adhere to COVID-19 guidelines by wearing masks and social distancing. Individuals will bring their own prayer rugs.
What used to be the Vietnamese Muslim Center was renamed as the Islamic Center of Fullerton about four years ago. The change was part of a push to be more inclusive and to help reach a broader Muslim community. Qazi said the Muslim community has outgrown the office space where it congregates and has sought to purchase a new building.
To Qazi, helping bring these two Catholic and Muslim institutions together is inspiring.
“It’s a dream come true in terms of interfaith solidarity,” he said.