Prayer carpets for a Muslim Jumuah service have been spread out in a transept wing of the Washington National Cathedral Friday as religious leaders prepare to host the church’s first-ever Muslim-led prayers.
The carpets have been arranged diagonally to face Mecca, as is required for prostrate Muslim prayers, and now lie under the grand Gothic arches of the National Cathedral, which has a traditional floor plan in the form of a cross. The “transept” area is the two side wings of the church and includes chapels off to the side of the main altar.
The symbolism of Muslim prayers ringing out in America’s symbolic spiritual center – a cathedral of the Episcopal Church in the nation’s capital that has hosted presidential funerals, inaugural prayer services, and other nationally important spiritual services – is an attempt to heal the religious rifts that afflict the globe, organizers say.
“This is a dramatic moment in the world and in Muslim-Christian relations,” said Ebrahim Rasool, the South African ambassador to the United States, a Muslim who helped organize the event, in a statement. “This needs to be a world in which all are free to believe and practice and in which we avoid bigotry, Islamaphobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Christianity and to embrace our humanity and to embrace faith.”
Ambassador Rasool helped organize the event with the Rev. Gina Campbell, the cathedral’s director of liturgy, after the two worked together last December to plan a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and an icon for human rights.
"It is an enormous testament of solidarity," Rasool told The Huffington Post. "Of Christians toward Muslims who face the prospect of their religion being hijacked and towards Christians who face threats to their continued existence in place like the Middle East."
The night before Mr. Mandela’s memorial, as Rasool and Ms. Campbell were standing in the cathedral’s soaring nave – the long central space of the cruciform church – Rasool told the Episcopal priest that the space reminded him of being in an ancient mosque.
“What struck me was how he could look at our building and see his mosque. That was a powerful moment,” Campbell told HuffPost. “To realize we could be standing in the same spot in the same building and see our own prayer traditions.”
The two became friends and discussed how to promote religious dialogue and understanding amid global turmoil often defined by religious conflict. They decided to conduct a Friday Jumuah service, which is the Muslim day of prayer, akin to Christian Sundays and Jewish Saturday Shabbat.
The service will take place just after noon on Friday and will be cosponsored by various Muslim groups, including the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Islamic Society of North America.
The Washington National Cathedral will stream the service live on its website. Rasool will deliver the khutbah, or Muslim sermon, during the prayers.
Many churches and synagogues around the country host such Muslim prayer services, organizers say, but the venue in the nation’s capital holds special symbolic significance for the estimated 3 million Muslims in the US.
“We want the world to see the Christian community is partnering with us and is supporting our religious freedom in the same way we are calling for religious freedom for all minorities in Muslim countries,” Rizwan Jaka, a spokesman for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling, Va., told The Washington Post. “Let this be a lesson to the world.”