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Islamic prayers in Marshall Park draw critics

CHARLOTTE, N.C. As several hundred Muslims gathered for a traditional Jumah prayer Friday afternoon in Marshall Park, members of a Christian group carried signs – “Jesus is the Way” and “Islam is a Lie” – and played Christian music that could be heard throughout the park.

Despite the protest, the event unfolded peacefully as Muslim men and women, many wearing long robes and turbans or head scarves, sat on rugs on the grass or in folding chairs, facing toward Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.

Rev. Phillip “Flip” Benham of Concord-based Operation Save America, an anti-abortion group, and a handful of other protesters kept a respectful distance but occasionally moved closer with their Bibles to speak to some of the Muslims about Christianity.

“We’re glad they’re (the Muslims) here,” Benham said. “If the devil is going to throw a party, it’s imperative that the church of Jesus Christ show up.”

Muslim leaders were disappointed that the event, expected to draw thousands, attracted about 300. But they said their message – that Muslim Americans should take part in the political process – was more important than their number.

“We must make the Constitution work for all Americans. We’re not asking for anything more or anything less,” said Jibril Hough of Charlotte, spokesman for the event’s sponsor, the Bureau of Indigenous Muslim Affairs, headquartered in Newark, N.J.

The gathering kicked off a week of religious events in Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention.

Friday night, Catholic members of an anti-abortion group called “America, Defend Life,” met for a rosary and prayer outside Time Warner Cable Arena, where the DNC will open Tuesday. Charlottean Jim Beckert led the rosary – “Hail Mary, full of grace” – for the group of about 35 men, women and children carrying signs that read “I am a Person” over the picture of a fetus.

Before long, a group of about eight women walked up with signs from the opposite point of view – “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology.” Sunsara Taylor of New York City led the shouted chants to drown out the rosary: “Forced motherhood is female enslavement” and “women are not incubators.”

Members of the Charlotte anti-abortion group continued their vigil, calmly spreading 3,300 red carnations along the Trade Street sidewalk. The flowers represented the number of U.S. abortions daily, according to leader Andrea Hines.

Both groups said they plan to be outside Planned Parenthood on Albemarle Road at 10 a.m. Saturday for a pro-life prayer vigil and at the planned Civil Rights for Life march and rally Wednesday at Trade and Tryon streets. Taylor said her group, called End Pornography & Patriarchy: The Enslavement and Degradation of Women, will also protest outside strip clubs Saturday night.

It’s the connection to the Democratic National Convention that prompted a storm of criticism from conservative pundits and bloggers who claimed the Muslim prayer event was evidence that the DNC has aligned itself with radical Islam.

Hough denied claims, repeated by Benham at the event, that the outdoor prayer service was endorsed by the DNC host committee.

“We’re nonpartisan,” he said. “We’re not seeking to endorse any candidates. We are seeking to endorse issues.”

Benham was among those complaining the DNC had endorsed the Muslim event by promoting it on the DNC website. At the same time, he said the DNC had refused to allow Christian leaders to distribute gift bags to convention delegates.

A DNC host committee official said Thursday the committee had never sponsored the Muslim event. The event was removed from the committee website’s events calendar, the official said, “because speakers for the event and statements and positions from event organizers were not appropriate and relevant to the host committee.”

Participants in the Muslim prayer service didn’t let the protesters interfere with their worship. But Jamil Abdur-Rahman, a member of the National Muslim Council for Justice who traveled to Charlotte from Red House, Va., said the intrusion was “insulting.”

“You never see a Muslim at a Christian gathering trying to insult people,” he said. “You never see us doing anything like that.”

New Jersey resident Abdul Razzaq, 60, who grew up in Kershaw, S.C., and played football at Salisbury’s Livingstone College, said he’d like to see a time when every Muslim “paraded across the television screen is not portrayed to be a terrorist.”

“I don’t even know a terrorist,” he said. “We’re very peaceful people. We’re law-abiding, we vote, and we matter.”

Before the prayers began, officers with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department warned both groups to keep their sound below 75 decibels, the legal limit set by Mecklenburg officials. Benham turned down his music, which had started out much louder before Muslim speakers took the microphone, and said he had “no intent to interfere” with the service.

Police Sgt. Zeru Chickoree, one of nearly a dozen officers patrolling the event, said he was pleased at how the two groups worked together.

“They actually both can get their points across. This is the way it was intended to work,” he said.

The main speaker was Siraj Wahhaj, imam of an American Black Muslim mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the first Muslim to give an invocation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Wearing a long white robe and cap, he encouraged fellow Muslims to participate in the political system to “make America better.”

Several times, when Wahhaj mentioned Christians, Jews and other religions, Benham and others from his group stepped in closer and raised Bibles in their hands.

“So many people, they attack us because they don’t know,” Wahhaj said. “If they knew how much we loved Jesus, they would be embarrassed.”

That remark drew applause from some of the audience, the only such response.

As the Muslims bowed in prayer, music from the sound system on the nearby sidewalk filled the silence: “Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer…”

And as the service ended and people departed the park, one of Benham’s associates, Ante Pavkovic, began preaching: “Jesus Christ said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’… Blessed be the name of Jesus.”

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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