In Utah, Two Faiths and One Prayer

SALT LAKE CITY, June 30 – The men, all Muslims, kneeled in unison at evening prayers in the Khadeeja mosque, their incantations laced with anxiety over the fate of one of their spiritual brothers, a marine held captive on the other side of the world.

“Oh, Allah, we read the Koran to pray for the release of our brother Hassoun,” the voice of the mosque’s religious leader boomed over speakers around the white-walled room, referring to Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, 24, whose family worships at the mosque.

At Salt Lake City’s three mosques – two Sunni and one Shia – such supplications have become standard since Sunday, when news came of Corporal Hassoun’s capture in Iraq.

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Given its overwhelmingly Mormon population, Utah might seem an unlikely place for Muslim immigrants from Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Indonesia, Sudan and Pakistan. But the Muslim population of Utah has grown rapidly, to about 25,000, most of whom arrived in the last decade in the wake of conflicts around the world that in some cases involved ethnic cleansing.

The Iraqi community alone, its size swelled by the Persian Gulf war, numbers about 3,000. Many of the men are taxicab drivers here in Salt Lake City, where the street grid is designed around the location of Temple Square, the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Though far outnumbered by Mormons, some Muslims here point out how well the two faiths coexist, and have marveled at the way Mormons came forward to offer comfort not only after the attacks of Sept. 11 – in which about 500 Muslims are believed to have died – but also in the last few days.

On Monday, several Mormon women approached the Hassoun family in West Jordan, a Salt Lake City suburb, and asked if they could organize an event to raise awareness of Corporal Hassoun’s predicament, one of the women, Irene Smith, said.

Ms. Smith said that members of the family, who have largely been in seclusion since Sunday, replied that prayers had already been arranged at the mosque, and that they were welcome to attend.

“We wanted to honor them during their special time in their sacred, um, what do you call this building?” Ms. Smith said, hesitating over the name of the Khadeeja mosque, as she joined a group of women, some Mormon, some Muslim, for prayers. “We feel like we are all a little part of a larger community.”

The three Mormon women were given scarves to wear over their heads.

“To me, educating people about Islam is at least as important as praying for this man,” said one of the Muslim women, Asha Patel, 23.

Ms. Patel – her father is Hindu, her mother Mormon – said the Salt Lake Mormon community was tolerant of Muslims, and noted similarities between the two faiths. Both have codes of modesty and urge abstention from smoking and drinking.

But many elements of Islamic culture are still misunderstood, Ms. Patel said. Occasionally, when she wears a head scarf, she has noticed people staring, and she is often asked what she is doing for Easter or Christmas, holidays she does not celebrate.

“For me, it is just another day,” she said. “Some people are very taken aback; they are like, ‘Why wouldn’t you celebrate Easter?’ “

Another of the women, Samar Omar, 20, said she did not believe that Salt Lake City was so tolerant. When she wears her head scarf in public, as she has done her whole life, she, too, notices the looks. “I see people just staring at me with hate and anger,” she said. “You can read what they want to tell you on their faces.”

The Mormon Church

Given that the theology and practice of the Mormon Church violates essential Christian doctrines, Mormonism does not represent historical, Biblical Christianity, is not a Christian denomination, and is not in any way part of the Christian church.

After the gulf war, Ms. Omar, who was born in Kuwait, moved to Jordan and, seven years ago, to Salt Lake City. She said her family had not wanted to move to a bigger city like New York or Los Angeles, places that many Muslims believe are more dangerous than the Middle East.

“Salt Lake is more related to where we come from,” Ms. Omar said. “It is very peaceful. You do not see a lot of cops running around.”

But two days after Sept. 11, 2001, a Salt Lake man tried to set fire to a local restaurant owned by Pakistanis, in retaliation for the attacks.

Yet despite a community show of support for the restaurant, resentment of Muslims persisted.

“I had people come up to me and say, ‘Go back to your country,’ ” Ms. Omar said. “It happened three or four times. I can tell some people think I am a terrorist.”

After prayers, Shuaib-ud Din, the imam, or religious leader, at the Khadeeja mosque, said that life in Salt Lake City had become no more difficult after Sept. 11 than it was before. Relations with the Mormon community, he said, were good.

“There’s no conflict between Muslims and Christians,” he said. “To us, Jesus is a prophet. We accept the true teachings of Jesus, not the distorted teaching we hear today. We have no beef with the other faiths.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
New York Times, via the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, USA
June 30, 2004
Nick Madigan and Melissa Sanford
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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday July 1, 2004.
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