In a rare landmark visit to a prominent mosque, a delegation of Christians, led by Bishop Sebastian Francis, visited the Abdullah Fahim Mosque in Bertam in Province Wellesley on 14 December 2015.
They were welcomed by the hosts, Ustaz Zulkhairi Bidin and his team. The Christian delegation comprised lay representatives and parish priests from neighbouring parishes: Fr Henry Rajoo, St Anne’s, Bukit Mertajam, Fr Victor Louis, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Butterworth and Fr Nelson Joseph, Christ the King, Sungai Petani.
Uztaz Zulkhairi explained the short history of the mosque, which is one of several district (major) mosques in Penang.
The mosque was opened on December 12, 2012. A local resident told me that 12 couples underwent a wedding ceremony on that auspicious date.
The visit was arranged by long-time bridgebuilder Abdul Rahman Kasim, who had previously facilitated the visits by Muslim delegations to various churches in the northern region. This was the first time in memory that a high-level Christian delegation was visiting a prominent local mosque.
According to Abdul Rahman, the blue-domed mosque is modelled after the famous Blue Mosque in Turkey. Bishop Sebastian mentioned to the hosts that popes had visited that mosque several times.
Two local Muslims demonstrated to the visiting Christians how ablution was performed at the mosque before entry into the cavernous carpeted prayer hall over which hung a glittering chandelier.
Inside the hall, the Christian delegation was shown the area where the imam addressed the congregation and the raised pulpit for khutbahs (sermons), which reminded me of the raised pulpits in ancient cathedrals.
Bishop Sebastian made it a point of asking the ustaz how long their sermons usually were.
“Fifteen minutes,” he was told, a point which the bishop then highlighted to his priests. More than that, and the congregation might doze off; so it was important that the delivery was powerful, said one of the Muslim hosts.
Uztaz Zulkhairi then hosted the visiting delegation to brunch at the mosque conference room during which the Christians were briefed about the activities of the mosque via a powerpoint presentation. Also present were several local Muslim activists and politicians and an old friend of the Christians, Ustaz Soib Mohd Amin.
In his address, Bishop Sebastian pointed out to those seated at the long table that this year, Prophet Muhammad’s birthday falls just before Christmas.
He said the Church uses the term People of God to refer to all people, in a bid to be inclusive.
This year, the Catholic community was also marking a Jubilee year for the Church and Bishop Sebastian reflected on the theme of God’s mercy. “The world needs mercy these days, not only justice, but also mercy. At the level of justice, we can argue and fight — and we must — whenever there is something that is not true, that is corrupt… we must be against all kinds of injustices but beyond justice and injustice, the Pope has chosen to declare a Jubilee Year of Mercy for all people.
He then conveyed the greetings of the peace of Christmas from the Christian community to his Muslim hosts.
The Abdullah Fahim Mosque is named after a local Islamic scholar who is the grandfather of former premier Abdullah Badawi.
Hopefully, this visit will open the door for more visits and bridge-building between the Muslim and Christian communities, and take interreligious dialogue in the country to another level.
This article was first published in The Herald.