In English Town, Muslims Lead Effort To Create Interfaith Haven A disused church in the northern English town of Bolton has been transformed into a community center where all are welcome. It's the product of years of effort and difficult discussions.
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In English Town, Muslims Lead Effort To Create Interfaith Haven

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In English Town, Muslims Lead Effort To Create Interfaith Haven

In English Town, Muslims Lead Effort To Create Interfaith Haven

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the UK, stories about Islam often seem to focus on friction and ethnic tensions. This story is different. In a town near Manchester, Muslim leaders have transformed an abandoned church into something that gives back to the entire town. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Bolton, England.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Inayat Omarji vividly remembers the reaction when he first looked into renovating the abandoned church in his neighborhood. At the time, he was head of the local council of mosques.

INAYAT OMARJI: You know, there's a bearded, young Muslim chap involved in a church - whoops. He's going to turn it into a mosque.

SHAPIRO: But the community didn't need another mosque.

OMARJI: There's about three or four around here. What it needed is a place where people can meet, people can come to, people can socialize. And that's what it needed.

SHAPIRO: So local Muslims decided to turn this church into a community center for everyone. That was 10 years ago. All Souls Church was covered in graffiti. Thieves had stolen the lead pipes and broken some of the windows. But even as a boarded-up shell, All Souls was the geographic center of this community. Its bell tower looms above the surrounding streets. Omarji says one of the first decisions he had to make was what to call this new community center.

OMARJI: It was a no-brainer, actually, because the name just said it all - All Souls. And somebody says, oh, is this - is it just for the Muslim community? Or is it just for...? No, just, you know think about the name - All Souls - for everybody.

SHAPIRO: The interior now has elements of an ornate 18th-century church. But it holds elegant floating pods with meeting space, activity rooms, and a cafe. The building's new management shows a clear respect for history.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My happiest childhood memory was being picked for Rose Queen. And what an excitement that was.

SHAPIRO: Touchscreens along one wall play videos, where people who used to attend this church tell their stories. The Reverand Gerald Hyam was vicar of All Souls in the 1970s. At that point, the local cotton mills were closing, white Christian families were leaving and Muslim families with South Asian roots were moving in. Last week, Hyam returned to the church for his first close look at what it has become.

REVERAND GERALD HYAM: I think it's been brilliantly done.

SHAPIRO: He ordered a cappuccino and sat with his wife on one of the new couches, admiring details that he recognized from almost 40 years ago.

HYAM: You know, the war memorial down here and keeping the altar area. It could so easily have just been gutted.

SHAPIRO: In fact, this is still a consecrated church. A local group will hold Christian services here once a month. In the context of ethnic tensions around the UK and Europe, this space feels like an anomaly. It appears to be a completely frictionless blending of cultures. That's an illusion, says Mark Head.

MARK HEAD: Nothing is completely frictionless. People are human beings.

SHAPIRO: Head is vice chair of the trust that oversees this building. He says the integration you see here is the result of difficult conversations. For example, this part of Britain eats a lot of pork. The cafe is halal. Then there's the question of alcohol, which observant Muslims don't drink.

HEAD: When people want alcohol for a particular event or a conference, that will be organized by a separate entity altogether.

SHAPIRO: There's a method of bell ring called the grandsire triples. It's only been done at key moments in this church's history - the end of World War II, the building's 100th anniversary. Plaques in the church mark each occasion it's been played. When All Souls reopened on December 6, the bells rang for the first time in 25 years. And another plaque will be installed marking this moment next to the others. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Bolton, England.

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