The Washington National Cathedral hosted its first Muslim prayer service Friday in a powerful symbolic gesture aimed at uniting Christians and Muslims at the nation’s most prominent Episcopal church. The service, however, was quickly embroiled in controversy after conservative leaders called the effort inappropriate.
The church often hosts national events, including presidential funerals, inaugural prayer services and interfaith services. But Friday was the first time Muslims were invited to lead their own prayers at the church, according to the Guardian. To commemorate the service, prayer carpets were spread out across the church, including in its chapels. The rugs faced Mecca, as required for Muslim prayers.
“This is a dramatic moment in the world and in Muslim-Christian relations,” Ebrahim Rasool, the South African ambassador to the United States, who helped organize the event, said, according to the Christian Science Monitor. “This needs to be a world in which all are free to believe and practice and in which we avoid bigotry, Islamaphobia, racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Christianity and to embrace our humanity and to embrace faith.”
Friday marked Jumuah, the Muslim day of prayer, similar to Christian Sundays and the Saturday Shabbat in Judaism. Various Muslim groups, including the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America, sponsored the event. About 100 people were invited to the service, which was not open to the public, the Washington Post reported.
The prayers drew criticism from Christian conservatives opposed to Muslims using the church. An unidentified woman shouted “leave our churches alone,” disrupting the prayer, according to The Associated Press. Before she was escorted out, she added: “Why can’t you worship in your mosque?”
Meanwhile, the Reverend Franklin Graham, son of popular evangelist Billy Graham, slammed the Muslim service on his Facebook page Thursday. “It’s sad to see a church open its doors to the worship of anything other than the One True God of the Bible who sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth to save us from our sins,” wrote Graham. “Jesus was clear when He said, ‘I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me’ (John 14:6).”
The conservative website Breitbart posted a story under the headline: “MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD OVERRUNS NATIONAL CATHEDRAL.”
Congress granted a charter in 1893 allowing the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia to build the church. It opened for service in 1912, according to its website.