Rev Isaac Poobalan makes chapel at St John’s church available to Muslims after mosque proves to be too small for worshippers

A Scottish reverend has invited Muslims to pray alongside Christians in an Aberdeen church because the nearby mosque is so small that some worshippers were forced to pray outside.

The rector of St John’s church, Rev Isaac Poobalan, has made parts of the building available to the congregation of the mosque. Up to 100 Muslims now pray in the main chapel five times every Friday.

Church leaders believe this may be the only place in the UK where Christians and Muslims worship side by side; there have been similar moves in the US, including in Memphis two years ago.

The building which now acts as the Syed Shah Mustafa Jame Masjid mosque was built on the grounds of St John’s Church at St John’s Place, off Crown Street, in the mid-1980s. In 2006 it was turned into a prayer room, but developers did not anticipate that up to 200 Muslims would want to worship there.

“If they all squeezed in very tightly about 60 or 70 people could fit inside,” said Poobolan. “One day when I was walking past the mosque, I found 20 or 30 people outside on the ground around the pavements with their hands and feet exposed. You could see their breath. When I spoke to people at the church about the situation, someone actually said to me this was not our problem, but I had seen it with my own eyes, so it was a problem.”

The two faiths have been working closely together in Aberdeen for several years. On Christmas Eve 2010 the church and the mosque held simultaneous prayers and then both opened their doors to provide food for local people.

On 11 September 2011, Poobalan and the chief imam held a joint service, and together read from scriptures of the Bible and the Qur’an, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the US terrorist attacks. “We had the sense that we were in this together and we really wanted to convey the message that, if we are genuinely seeking peace, we had to work together and pray together,” said Poobalan.

Poobalan grew up in India and had many Muslim and Hindu friends. He said: “Religion does not play a role when it comes to friendship and hospitality. They transcend the religious divide.”

St John’s Church also opens its doors to people from a local mental health hospital every Wednesday. Poobalan said some members of his congregation were reluctant to accept those with mental health problems into the church, and later hesitant to accept Muslim worshipers, but they were learning to “transcend” such instincts.

The church is part of the Scottish Episcopal Church, which belongs to the Anglican Communion and not the Church of Scotland.

The Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney, the Right Rev Dr Robert Gillies, said: “Internationally, the news speaks of tension and struggles between Islam and Christianity. Yet, here in Aberdeen, a mosque and a church have built bonds of affection and friendship. It must be stressed that neither has surrendered or compromised any aspect of the historic faith to which each holds. But mutual hospitality and goodwill exists.”