Despite Ground Zero, Astoria exemplifies tolerance

ASTORIA, New York City – There was no invading army. No Cordoba House. There were no protestors and no raging Ground Zero mosque debate. There were simply some Korean Christians who wanted to sell a church, and some Muslims who needed a place to pray.

The Dar al-Dawah mosque still has a churchy feel to it. Seven years have passed since the purchase, which occurred nearly in step with the American invasion of Iraq, its second predominantly Muslim country in as many years. Still, in this most recent time of taxicab stabbings, Mosque floor urination and propane fueled terrorists, there remains 23rd Ave in Astoria Queens, home to a mosque and a church nestled closely together between 35th and 37th Street, and the community that supports them both.

“We all know very well that Astoria is a multicultural neighborhood, a true mosaic really,” said Apostolos E. Zoupaniotis, editor of Greek News, a local bilingual newspaper headquartered just yards from the mosque.

Zoupaniotis, a seven-year resident of Astoria, said the Greek majority in the community and the mosque parishioners meshed right away. Makes sense; Dar al-Dawah literally means “House of Invitation.”

“We all came from the same family, from Adam and Eve, so we have to love our neighbors,” said Imam Ibrahim El Terkawi, speaking in Arabic, through an interpreter. The mosque shows its “love” in the form of frequent holiday invites and community outreach events.

“This particular mosque has a pretty friendly relationship with the community as a whole,” said Zoupaniotis. “Invites go out for every Ramadan holiday, and other events are attended by politicians and local leaders.”

Local leaders included not only politicians, but religious figures as well. Within a block of the mosque is a Greek Orthodox Church, and a few more blocks away stands a Synagogue.

“They invite us to their celebrations and honored our bishop several times,” said Sister Christonimfy Fitzpatrick, a nun for the last 14 years at the nearby Greek Orthodox Church. “Ever since they moved in, they’ve been reaching out to the community. They reach out to all the different religions.”

It wasn’t all hugs and handshakes though. Some of the Greek Christians were a little apprehensive about their new neighbors.

“A lot of Greeks were upset when they turned [the church] into a mosque,” admitted Fitzpatrick who said some members of her congregation even came into the church grasping their crucifixes with tears in their eyes.

“But it depends on the mentality you’ve grown up with,” she said. Fitzpatrick explained that when she was studying in Greece, seeing a Muslim was a rarity. “It’s much more difficult for them to accept it, like [Americans] do.”

The mosque’s frequent attempts at outreach may have softened the cultural impact of a newly established religious center. But the special kind of openness and candor of Imam Terkawi also helped bridge the gap.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” said Terkawi, “if I were in a church, I would pray. And any Christians are more than welcome to come to the mosque if they would like to pray, because every place is like the house of God.”

Terkawi and Fitzpatrick may see eye-to-eye, but there’s still much work to be done between religious groups worldwide, especially in the face of the Ground Zero Mosque controversy and the ongoing Middle East peace talks.

Added Terkawi: “If these groups could let go of extremism and go back to the message of love, than we could all live in harmony.”

Photo Caption: A man walks by the Dar al-Dawah mosque on 23rd Avenue in Astoria, Queens. The mosque stands just a block from a Greek Orthodox Church.