Tides of support buoy a city's displaced Muslims

When vandals rendered an Ohio mosque unusable, a nearby church offered to house its Islamic school.

Shahid Mahmud, who teaches 10-year-olds at a Muslim school, felt comfortable in his new classroom.

The drawings of Christian crosses on a bulletin board didn't bother him. Nor did the setting in a Christian school.

"Islam teaches peace," he said Sunday, passing out an exam to his students. "Peace means you may agree to disagree."

Here in Columbus, Ohio, a displaced Islamic school has found an unusual new home - a Congregational church. For the next several months, nearly 130 young Muslims will learn about the Koran and the prophet Muhammad in the same place where Christians will be taught about the gospels and Jesus as Savior.

This unprecedented arrangement comes on the heels of the city's most notorious example of post-Sept. 11 bigotry. In late December, vandals caused $100,000 in damage to the city's oldest mosque, leaving nearly 500 worshippers and the city's only Islamic school without a home. But within hours, donations and letters of support flooded the mosque, members of other faiths condemned the attack, and Christian churches and a nearby synagogue offered to house the center's Islamic Weekend School.

The response exemplifies an American wellspring of tolerance and communal spirit, which cities nationwide have tapped since Sept. 11 amid a surge in vandalism, violence, and threats against against Muslims. To some experts, the acts of neighborly outreach suggest that in the wake of bigotry may flow greater tolerance and stronger interfaith ties.

"I think we are at a very teachable moment in our nation," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance in Washington.

On Dec. 30, about 15 worshippers showed up for morning prayers at the Islamic Center, just east of downtown Columbus, and found water pouring from the ceiling, smashed light fixtures, and broken pipes. Columbus police have made no arrests and have not speculated on a motive, but many Muslims suspect a hate crime. The center had received a threatening letter a week before.

The incident shocked this growing city, which boasts large gay and immigrant populations and considers itself a paragon of tolerance in the Midwest.

On the day the vandalism was discovered, Rabbi Harold Berman of Tifereth Israel, which is on the same block as the mosque, visited the the center and offered to house the Islamic school, which meets every Sunday.

Others also came forward later, offering to provide temporary space and fix broken pipes and plaster. In early January, about 150 people rallied in the cold to support the center and condemn the vandals. "We may have a few people doing bad things, but ... we have an awful lot of people with good hearts," said Bonnie Awana of the Islamic Foundation of Central Ohio, which runs the center.

The outpouring also reflects what's going on in cities from Raleigh, N.C., where interfaith activists lobbied city officials to protect Muslims' civil rights, to Aurora, Colo., where members of different religions held hands and encircled a mosque to show support for Muslims.

The key now is to build on these newfound links, says Mr. Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, which has about 130,000 members. "This could give us the kind of cooperation in the religious community that we have not seen."

In Columbus, Sunday marked the first day of classes for the Islamic School at the First Congregational Church, where the school will remain until the mosque is fixed or another spot is found. Islamic Center leaders chose the site because it offered the most room and was just 10 blocks from their regular home.

As the parents and children filed into the unfamiliar building this past Sunday, Julie Choueiki, who has three children in the school, stood at the entrance saying "As salaam alaikum" (Peace be unto you) and pointing each child in the right direction. "You treat your classroom with respect," she told one group. "Someone lent it to us."

The Rev. Tim Ahrens, First Congregational's senior minister, watched the children, and was struck by the similarities with his students. "I stuck my head in one of the classes, and I said, 'Are you all happy to be back in school?' All the girls said yes, and all the boys said no. It was just like my school," he laughs.

Mahmudur Rahman, the school's director, says he feels comfortable in the church, pointing out that Muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet. The group also welcomes the chance to teach other faiths about the Muslim community in Columbus, which has doubled to 30,000 in the past three years as thousands of Somalians have immigrated to the city.

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