Prayer Rugs in the Cathedral

National Cathedral

It is 2:30 p.m., 14 November in Washington DC as I begin to write this blog and “America’s church,” the Washington National Cathedral, has just witnessed its first ever Muslim Friday prayer service. Muslim Friday prayers or jumu’ah prayers were held today in the north transept of the cathedral, chosen as an appropriate space for Muslim prayer because of its absence of Christian iconography, its mosque-like architecture, and for providing the necessary orientation in the direction of Mecca. One hundred invited Muslim guests came to pray (along with a lone, uninvited female Christian protester who was quickly hustled out).

Holding Muslim Friday prayers within the very walls of America’s national cathedral was the brainchild of the cathedral’s liturgical director Rev. Canon Gina Campbell and South Africa’s ambassador to the US Ebrahim Rasool. The two became friends when they worked together on a memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela. Muslims had participated in interfaith services at the cathedral prior to this time, but holding a Muslim-conducted, Muslim prayer service would be a first. In the minds of the two planners, allowing Muslims to hold Friday prayers in the US national cathedral would, hopefully, “foster more understanding and acceptance between Christians and Muslims around the world.” Ambassador Rasool describes today’s prayer service as ” a dramatic moment in the world and in Muslim-Christian relations.”

It is a “dramatic moment in the world,” I agree, but my reasons for thinking so are probably not the same as Rasool’s. Holding Muslim Friday prayers in America’s national cathedral is so misguided in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, many people–Americans included–do not know that the Washington National Cathedral is an Episcopal cathedral, namely, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington. (I encountered one such uninformed American only this evening.) The cathedral is the seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the seat of the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington DC, Mariann Edgar Budde. The cathedral has functioned as the nation’s premier church since 1893 when Congress granted a charter to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia to build the “great church for national purposes” envisioned in 1792 by the country’s founders. The worship services at the cathedral follow Episcopal belief and practice, and are based on The Book of Common Prayer (many no doubt would dispute this claim, especially after today).

The Muslim guests were welcomed to today’s prayer service by Rev. Canon Campbell who challenged the participants with the exhortation, “Let us stretch our hearts and let us seek to deepen mercy for we worship the same God.” According to Campbell, they were to “stretch [their] hearts” (whatever that means) because they worship the same God as the Rev. Canon Campbell. Allah and the Christian God are not the same God, however. The differences between them are profound (and a topic for a whole other blog.) The major differences, in short, are: Allah is one; the Christian God is triune, Father-Son-Holy Spirit. The apostle John says that God is love. Allah is never described thus. The Muslim Jesus is one in a line of 28 prophets of Allah and has been superseded by Muhammad, the last and greatest prophet. The Christian Jesus is not a mere prophet but the Son of God, God Incarnate. The Muslim Jesus did not die on the cross; he only appeared to. The Christian Jesus predicted his coming death on many occasions. To believe that Allah and the Christian God are the same God, you have to ignore everything said about Allah in the Qur’an.

The webpage of the Washington National Cathedral states that the cathedral is called to “serve as the spiritual home for the nation.” To invite Muslims into America’s “spiritual home” to pray is ecumenical outreach at the highest level. You would think that such a gesture would be reciprocated. Not surprisingly, there has been no announcement of an upcoming Christian prayer service in some grand mosque somewhere in the Muslim world, like the Grand Mosque in Mecca. As usual, ecumenical outreach seems to move in only one direction.

Another troubling aspect of this ecumenical outreach is the list of sponsors. When you look at the backers of today’s prayer service, you see the names CAIR and ISNA, two groups accused of providing assistance to terrorist groups. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) were declared by a federal court to be unindicted co-conspirators of the terrorist organization HAMAS. What do such groups hope to gain by promoting Muslim prayer in a cathedral, you have to ask.

Rasool describes today’s Muslim prayer service as “a dramatic moment for the world and for Muslim-Christian relations.” He’s forgotten about an earlier event–and an equally dramatic event, I would say–staged this past June in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica. Like the north transept of the cathedral, the papal gardens were chosen for their lack of Christian iconography. At the invitation of Pope Francis, Muslims joined Jews and Christians in the papal gardens for a papal prayer summit, each praying “in their own tradition.”

We know what Rev. Canon Campbell and Ambassador Rasool hope to accomplish by such magnanimous gestures. But what do those Muslims who participate hope to gain? Devout Muslims who yearn to see the “true religion” established worldwide cannot help but be encouraged when they hear Allah’s name invoked in the national cathedral of the world’s foremost Christian nation, the USA. A troubling scenario: According to jihadist doctrine, if a place of worship is used by Muslims for their prayers, that territory subsequently becomes sacred Muslim land. That’s an outcome that Rev. Gina Campbell has not likely considered.


Volleyball and Other Vices


Hard to believe in this day and age but shockingly true: If you go to watch a men’s volleyball game in Iran, and are a woman, you can end up in jail for a year. This is what has happened to Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 25-year-old woman from London with dual Iranian-British citizenship. On 20 June Ghavami, along with a dozen or so like-minded women, attempted to enter Azadi Stadium in Tehran to watch the Volleyball World League match between Iran and Italy. What the women tried to do is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran. When Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979, one of the measures he imposed was a ban on women at football matches. In 2012, the ban was extended to volleyball games as well. In the thinking of Iran’s theocrats, such a ban is necessary in order to protect women from the lewd behaviour of the male fans at sporting events. (I suppose it never occurred to Iran’s leaders to deal with the lewd male behaviour). Only one other country bans women from male sporting events and that other country, not surprisingly, is Saudi Arabia. Oh, and the women were guilty of breaking a second law that day: They wore white hijabs or headscarves when Iranian law required dark-coloured hijabs.

Ghavami and the other women were arrested outside Azadi Stadium, allegedly beaten, and then released. When Ghavami went back to retrieve items of hers that had been confiscated, she was rearrested when her dual citizenship became known, and she was put on trial. Now languishing in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin Prison and on a dry-hunger strike [no liquids], Ghavami apparently is unaware yet of the one-year prison sentence imposed by Iran’s judiciary. Her incarceration and sentence have nothing to do with attending a volleyball match, Iran claims; rather, Ghavami is guilty of “propagating against the ruling system,” of “spreading anti-regime propaganda.”

Iran’s judiciary claims its ban on women at male sporting events is all about protecting women. This is the same judiciary that has set the legal age of marriage for girls in Iran at age 13 and allows girls as young as 9 to be married off with permission from a court. In 2012, at least 1,537 marriages of girls under 10 years of age were registered. The girls were given in marriage to males at least ten years older in age than they. Legislation has also been ratified that allows an Iranian man to marry his adopted daughter. Some protection of women!

Outside Iran, Ghavami’s prison sentence has been met with shock, disbelief, and outrage. The Volleyball World League (FIVB) has sent a letter to His Excellency Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, but has yet to receive a reply. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has sent a letter to the National Olympic Committee of Iran, but there has been no response so far. Letters are a start, but just a start. International sporting associations must take a stand against gender discrimination and ban any country-member that imprisons or penalizes anyone–whether male or female–for attending, or simply trying to attend as in Ghavami’s case, one of their sporting events. Until Ghavami is released, Iran should be ousted from all international sporting associations.

Until Ghavami’s imprisonment, I had never considered the freedom to attend a sporting event–regardless of one’s gender–as one of our treasured freedoms in the West. I was at a football game this past weekend. It was cold and rainy, and the match went into overtime. I was so cold that I just wanted the game to end–I no longer cared which team won. But I didn’t let on. I hooted and hollered along with the rest of the spectators. There were no ‘lewd’ men to be seen anywhere, just men totally focused on the game. Must have been the weather.