By Janice Neumann
Before visiting the American Islamic Association, Gary Kopycinski always tells his religion students the learning experience will make them “bridge-builders” whenever they encounter people of different faiths.
The students at Marion Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, who already are interested in learning more about Islam and the Muslim culture, become even more engaged in the tour, according to Kopycinski, a theology teacher.
“When they meet somebody of a different faith, they have a depth of understanding that others, perhaps, do not,” said Kopycinski, who’s been taking students to the Frankfort mosque since 2006. About 60 of his World Religion class seniors will be visiting Feb. 28.
Many schools and church congregations visit the mosque yearly. The Friday tours can include refreshments and a 45-minute interactive presentation on Islam, lunch in the banquet hall, socializing with Muslim members and a 20-minute sermon by the Iman in the prayer hall. The students then watch a 5-minute prayer session, sometimes also participating, followed by an hour-long question and answer session.
After the tour, the guests receive a “Thank you” card with their names written in Arabic.
Khalid Mozaffar, a long-time member who leads many of the tours, said most mosques in the Chicagoland region offer some type of tour as a means of reaching out to the community and breaking down stereotypes they may have about Islam and Muslims.
“It’s very important to create an understanding with our neighbors,” said Mozaffar. “We as Muslims are very proud to show others our place of worship … it’s something we hold very dear.”
Mozaffar said some guests initially might think of Muslims as terrorists or connected to the killing of anyone considered an infidel [a person without faith].
“We have seen so many times where people come in scared, nervous, apprehensive or totally negative,” said Mozaffar. “You can see it on their faces [relief]…they say that they are so happy because they didn’t expect this.”
Pastor Jan Shaulis of Grace Untied Methodist Church in Joliet said the visits were especially helpful to the youth in her congregation since they had the chance to meet younger Muslims.
“When you can sit down and talk with people, it alleviates that fear,” said Shaulis.
Dr. Saqib Mohajir, an American Islamic Association member who is helping organize the Marion Catholic High School visit, said he enjoyed the tours because youth often have fewer preconceptions about people and religions than adults.
“Nobody is born with prejudices, they always learn them,” said Mohajir. “It’s easier to make judgments about people when you’ve never met them.”
Mohajir also said the visits helped members like him learn how the community viewed them and to show the visitors they are a welcoming house of worship.
“We found that we’ve forged really strong ties with the surrounding communities … they know us,” said Mohajir.
Kopycinski said his students came away with a new understanding of Muslim women since they often have misconceptions, believing their long garments and head scarves are a sign of oppression.
“I think one of the things that they learn is Muslim women and men are what they are because of their devotion to God,” said Kopycinski. “It’s not that [oppression] at all, it’s a question of modesty because the prophet [Mohammed] taught that women should be respected and are equal.
“I think that’s a good lesson for the students about modesty and respect,” he said.
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