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September 11
A Year Later

Unusual charity for unusual times


This is not your typical buildings and grounds project, but then these are not typical times.

Episcopalians from the diocese of New York, many of them personally affected by events of Sept. 11, are helping rebuild a mosque in Afghanistan that was bombed by the United States last fall. Working with Afghan Muslims from Masjid Hazrat-i-Abubakar, a mosque in Flushing, N.Y., the Episcopalians have raised more than half of the needed $37,764. Reconstruction, which began in August, is expected to be completed by the end of this fall.

Impetus for the unique interfaith project came from members of the Episcopalian clergy and a Muslim imam (prayer leader), all of whom were eager to exemplify religion’s concern for the common good during a time when the threat of terrorism has challenged Muslim and Christian identity.

“I have learned over the years that all the people of God have this in common: We understand that God loves us and we are supposed to help other people. Both our peoples do this,” said the Rev. Stephen Holton, an Episcopal parish priest from Ossining, N.Y. Holton was speaking to Muslim village elders at a June meeting in the Qurabagh District Mosque.

Villagers say the mosque, located just north of Kabul, was hit some time last fall after the Taliban occupied the building and began using it as a military base. They say the Taliban were shooting from the windows and ignored pleas from locals who approached, Quran in hand, and begged the combatants, for the sake of the Book, not to use the building as a cover for battle. Although a U.S. bomb damaged two walls and the roof, much of the building is still standing.

The idea for rebuilding the mosque originated with Bishop Mark S. Sisk of the Episcopal diocese of New York last October. “He heard that a mosque had been bombed in the Kabul area. It was on the news for about a day, and he was interested in a ground zero to ground zero exchange,” Holton said.

Sisk, who became New York’s diocesan bishop Sept. 29, just weeks after terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, has made Christian/Muslim dialogue a central theme of his first year. He hosted President Mohammad Khatami of the Islamic Republic of Iran last November and members of the World Muslim League in late June.

“I believe that it is our duty as Christian leaders, witnesses to the promises of the living Lord, to take initiatives that can bind up the wounds of the human community,” said Sisk in his annual address to the faithful, given June 8.

In late spring Ravan Farhadi, U.N. ambassador from Afghanistan, introduced Sisk to Imam Mohammad Sherzad, Muslim cleric for the Hazrat-i-Abubakar Mosque and president of the Afghan Forum for Peace and Rehabilitation. Speaking through a translator, Sherzad said he was “kind of surprised” and very pleased that a religious leader from a different religion wanted to rebuild a mosque. “Although they are coming from a different religion, they are saying we are building a place of worship. That means we all worship God,” he said.

In early June, shortly before both men left for Afghanistan, Sherzad met Holton, a founding member of the Episcopal-Muslim Relations Committee. Traveling as an elected delegate to Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, Sherzad raised $8,000 for the Qurabagh mosque before leaving for Kabul.

Holton, who went on behalf of Sisk, traveled with an interfaith delegation, organized by the San Francisco-based human rights organization Global Exchange, which had assisted in identifying the location of the mosque. Holton said the trip had the full support of his Ossining parish and he saw it as an opportunity to “build relationships” with Afghan Muslims.

“Our country is good at projecting force, and that seems to be the only way we know how to interact with the world,” said Holton. He said he wanted to show that “Christians are hospitable and maybe Americans are not so bad.”

On June 23, Sherzad and Holton met with Muslim male elders from the Qurabagh congregation. Their Sunday meeting, held in the ruined mosque, dealt with the practical and sublime. Sherzad spoke specifically of plans to rebuild. Holton quoted from the Quran and the Bible.

By the end of their brief stay in Afghan- istan, imam and priest had settled on a contractor, come up with a building plan and selected Hashimatullah Hakimyar, a local employee of the international aid agency CARE, to oversee the project. Holton credited their speedy progress to the hard work of Sherzad and the energy of the Afghan people, which he described as “so stunning and impressive, given that 70 percent of the country is reduced to rubble.”

Although each village in Afghan- istan has its own mosque, these are typically very modest. The district masjid (place of prostration) however, is akin to a house of worship and pastoral center combined. Here, the faithful gather for Friday prayers and for annual celebrations like Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan. There are classrooms for religious instructions, and this is where families come to consult with the imam.

According to Sherzad, the old Qurabagh District Mosque inadequately accommodated between 400 and 500 worshipers. Plans for reconstruction include expanding the entryway, making the minaret taller and enlarging the well area where ritual ablutions are performed before prayer.

He said the people of Qurabagh believe its “kind of a miracle that a Christian, someone from another religion, came to their country and showed respect for their religion.” Their situation, as they describe it, is paradoxical. The Taliban, their coreligionists, helped destroy the mosque and “then a different religion comes to repair it,” he said. “The people wonder, ‘Is this something from God that has brought these people together to help each other?’ ”

“I have never felt so completely used by God in all my life,” said Holton. “One thing I told people is that as Christians, we believe in unconditional love. And what love could be more unconditional than building a house of worship for another people that we as Christians could not possibly use?”

Claire Schaefffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worchester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002