Post 9/11, some Muslims pray in Christian churches
In a Catholic church located in the shadow of Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington, the first US president, a group of Muslim faithful roll out their prayer rugs each week and kneel to pray to Allah.
Polls show that Islam in the United States is mistrusted and associated with violence, and Christian churches actively helping Muslims remain the exception ten years after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Yet inspired by their reading of Biblical passages, some US Christians are increasingly reaching out to the Muslim community.
"People true to their Christian faith try to achieve peace in the world," said Father Tom Ferguson at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia. "Hospitality is the first step towards getting to know one another."
Hundreds of area Muslims have been meeting at a hall in his church since August to pray while their new mosque is being built.
Ferguson and flock welcome the guests -- but they are fighting an uphill battle to re-define Muslims as friendly.
Prominent conservative US Christians have loudly pilloried Islam, including evangelist Franklin Graham, who called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion," and televangelist Pat Robertson, who claims Islam is really a violent political system.
According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, a jump from 25 percent in 2002.
Conservative politicos routinely denounce phantom Muslim plots to impose Islamic Sharia law in the United States. In November Oklahoma voters even voted to block judges from considering Islamic or international law when preparing a ruling.
This in country where, according to Pew, 78 percent of its 308 million residents are Christian, nearly two percent Jewish, and just 0.6 percent Muslim.
"Rarely has the United States seen a more reckless and bare-knuckled campaign to vilify a distinct class of people and compromise their fundamental civil and human rights than the recent rhetoric against Muslims," reads a recent report on violence against Muslims by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors hate crimes.
Bible Belt love for Islam
Reverend Steve Stone had no fear of Sharia when he hung a banner outside the Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee last year welcoming his neighbors at the Islamic mosque being built across the street.
The town is located outside Memphis, in a region known as the US "Bible Belt."
"At the time I only knew one Muslim, and I was a bit queasy in the stomach," Stone said.
He persevered, inspired by the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. "Jesus taught us to be a good neighbor," Stone said.
Danish Siddiqui with the Memphis Islamic Center said his group was "surprised when we saw the welcome sign."
And when Stone offered them his church’s main worship hall at no cost while the mosque was built "it took us off guard -- we weren't expecting this kind of response."
Not everyone agreed with Stone, and 20 Heartsong members left the church. But his community’s feedback otherwise was "90 percent positive."
The story was covered by several international TV networks, and mail -- overwhelmingly positive, Stone said -- flooded in from around the world.
Heartsong and the MIC have since held joint food drives and a joint Thanksgiving meal. On September 11 they plan to hold a joint blood drive "as a way to give life together," said Stone.
Islam has been in the Americas for centuries, brought originally by enslaved Africans during colonial times.
Today, roughly one-third of Muslims are US-born, mainly African-Americans. One-third is from south Asia -- Pakistan, India and Indonesia -- and one-third comes from Arab nations and places like Turkey and Iran.
Akbar Ahmed, a professor at the American University in Washington, found a mix of experiences among Muslims when visited 100 mosques for his 2010 book "Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam."
Islam in America is hardly monolithic, he says: there are liberal Sufi mystics, conservative Wahabis, and Imams preaching a variety of Sunni and Shiite Islam thought.
In general, Ahmed said, US Muslims are insecure, fearful of the future and with weak leadership.
Fear of a hate crimes and "concern for a Norway-type massacre ... are always on our mind," said Naim Baig, a member of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
"The hateful rhetoric towards Muslims is not diminishing," he said. Yet Baig and his group have not lost faith in his country.
In mid-2010 his group knocked on the doors of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, just outside the US capital, seeking to rent a room large enough for 300 people while their mosque was built.
Aldersgate’s lead pastor, Reverend Dennis Perry, pondered the request. "Our thought process was, 'what's the Christ-like response?'" he said.
Aldersgate leaders eventually agreed to let the Muslims them use their room at no cost, and when Perry informed his congregation one Sunday "there was applause," he said. "Eighty percent of the congregation supported the decision."
But there was also some pushback. "One small group believed we had invited terrorists into the building, and was convinced they would blow up the church one day with all of us inside," he said. Perry could not convince them otherwise, and five families left Aldersgate.
Another group, quoting the Bible, believed that Christianity and Islam were competitors, and Muslims were idol worshipers. Perry quoted different Biblical passages to assuage their fears.
Their talks were "as much about their identity as Christians as their political ideology," Perry said.
When the story of Aldersgate inviting the Muslims appeared on a conservative Christian website, he received "all kinds of perverted, ugly e-mails" from critics.
Perry however received strong support from his congregation, including from high-ranking military veterans that had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We are not going to be afraid. We are going to create a world of peace," said Perry.
Like in Tennessee, Aldersgate and the ICNA have collaborated on food drives and held joint social events.
In August the Muslim group moved to the nearby Good Shepherd Catholic church.
"Our faiths teach goodness and kindness towards other faiths," said Baig. "We recognize that we are all American and that we have to live together."