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World

'Visit My Mosque' Campaign Builds Bridges In Britain

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

More than 20 mosques across Britain recently opened their doors for a day to non-Muslims. It was an attempt by the Muslim Council of Britain to reach out to fellow Britons after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Vicki Barker visited a Shiite community center in the London suburb of Harrow.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: The "Visit My Mosque" campaign was organized on very short notice, partly out of Muslim revulsion at the Charlie Hebdo killings; perhaps, too, in the knowledge that Islamophobic attacks here in Britain tend to spike after any major Islamist atrocity. So members of the Shia Ithna-Asheri Community Center in Harrow, Northwest London, weren't sure what kind of turnout they'd get. But on the day, the center was packed with visitors sipping tea, nibbling pizza and cake, and eagerly listening to community members like Zahra Khimji describe a typical week there.

ZAHRA KHIMJI: On Mondays, we've got Quran recitations. On Tuesdays, we've got yoga for the ladies. Wednesday, we've got mother and toddler groups. On Fridays, we've got lectures for the whole community. So every day is, like, pretty much very different, very, very...

BARKER: The next day Khimji was due to meet with members of Harrow's Jewish community to discuss the Charlie Hebdo killings.

KHIMJI: We want to talk very openly and frankly about what it means and what we're worried about and what we can do together to condemn things like that.

BARKER: Heather Guy, a Christian who had driven in from the English countryside, had actually been thinking of organizing some kind of Muslim outreach through her church.

HEATHER GUY: I saw this advertisement and thought it was a brilliant idea to join in and do exactly what I was thinking we should be doing. So it's great that they've beaten us, you know, beaten us to it.

BARKER: Nearby, community member Ahmed Versi was studying the scene in some wonder.

AHMED VERSI: We only gave the neighbors less than two days' notice and you can see a very large turnout. We didn't expect so many people.

BARKER: Seventy-something Peter Edwards showed up in a wool blazer and regimental tie. He is head of the North Harrow Home Guard Club, which grew out of the civilian defense effort during World War II. He says most of its 350 members have never met a Muslim.

PETER EDWARDS: So I'll come along out of interest to see - just to listen. I can report back to the club and when they ask questions about what's going on here hopefully I can show my members.

BARKER: This was, in its way, a very English encounter. The visitors - seemingly all middle-class, educated, proper Brits who would never have presumed to visit a mosque uninvited; their hosts -equally well-educated, middle-class professionals. Polite and animated conversation prevailed. This was a day for building bridges - visitor Hugh Dinan.

HUGH DINAN: There's an ignorance of what Islam is, not helped by events in the world by extremist groups at the moment. And I think that's probably the reason behind this open day, and I think it's a brilliant idea.

BARKER: But if asked point-blank, some of the hosts here admit they do tire of being expected to apologize for every terror attack by every extremist Muslim group. And Saba Syed, a Sunni who often prays at this Shiite mosque, says, when asked outright, that she does weary of being scene as the other in the land of her birth.

SABA SYED: If I go out to my Christmas party, I just won't drink, but that doesn't mean there's an us and them. So the idea that we have to keep kind of trying to explain ourselves is absolutely upsetting, especially when I've grown up here and I am British.

BARKER: If the 23 mosques that participated in "Visit My Mosque" Day were just a small fraction of Britains 1,700 places of Muslim worship, the organizers consider that a start. The Muslim Council of Britain says it hopes to make this an annual event with hopefully ever-greater participation. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.