Zeshan Choudhry faced toward Mecca on Friday afternoon, standing over a microphone on a plain lectern, and chanted the sonorous Muslim call to prayer.
He stuck his fingers in his ears as the sound system made the long Arabic vowels resound throughout the former Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church building at 2131 Vineville Ave.
Choudhry, a Virginia native who’s lived in Macon for 15 years, called a few dozen people to the formal Friday prayer service at the Islamic Center of Macon. They gathered in the nearly bare room, sitting on the carpet — which now bears a pattern of Moorish arches — with casually dressed men on one side of an office-style divider and women in head scarves out of sight on the other.
About 50 men eventually ambled in to hear Imam Atif Abbasi, wearing a long, white garment and white, knitted skullcap, deliver a technical discussion in rapid-fire English on all potential meanings of the Arabic word which roughly translates as “prayer.”
He extolled the need for prayer, partly because God demanded it but also to benefit the person who prayed — so long as it’s done without selfish motives — in good faith.
“Ask, and you shall be given it,” Abbasi said, echoing words spoken also by Jesus.
Growth in Muslim community prompts move
The group, which now uses the Islamic Center of Macon on Vineville, started at the Islamic Center of Middle Georgia at 4525 Bloomfield Road about 11 years ago, said local cardiologist Mirza Ahmed.
There was no personal or doctrinal split that caused them to form a center of their own — just a need for more space, as they grew from seven to 10 people to dozens of families from the surrounding region, he said.
Then they saw the old church building for sale, said local nephrologist Saghir Ahmed.
“Why don’t we keep it a house of God?” he asked. Saghir Ahmed said he hopes people will always use the building for prayer.
Macon-Bibb County property tax records say Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church sold the building Aug. 20, 2009, to the Islamic Center of Macon for $110,000.
“We needed a prayer hall that would be large enough to accommodate the number of people we expected, and this has worked out pretty well,” Mirza Ahmed said.
Zion Presbyterian Church rented the building at 2131 Vineville Ave. from the heirs of the Primitive Baptist founders, said Chuck Ezell, a member of Zion Presbyterian. The Presbyterian church thought about buying it but passed, he said.
The building contains one big hall, with new washrooms up front and a good-sized kitchen in the back.
But it needed lots of repairs, including shoring up the floor and complete rewiring. Mirza Ahmed wasn’t sure how much the renovations cost but said they were paid for by the local Muslim community.
Renovators preserved the old, wooden interior dome but installed modern washrooms at the entrance for ritual pre-prayer washing of the face, hands and feet.
The group plans to keep the former church’s stained-glass windows and is fixing cracks and leaks in them, Mirza Ahmed said — but the specifically Christian symbols in the center of each window are taped over with small pictures of Muslim sites.
Many of the people who attend the Islamic Center of Macon are from various Middle Eastern countries, India and Pakistan, Mirza Ahmed said.
About 60 percent were born outside the United States, but that percentage is getting smaller as more families have children — who are Americans by birth, he said.
Membership is “kind of loose,” but about 50 families use the center fairly regularly, Mirza Ahmed said.
Neighbors welcoming of mosque
The Islamic Center of Macon has so far been pretty low-key. An identifying sign was briefly placed out front, but soon removed; though Mirza Ahmed said that’s because they’re waiting for city code approval rather than any shyness
So far, they’ve been welcomed, he said.
“We have really had a wonderful response from our neighbors,” Mirza Ahmed said. Someone brought them flowers, while another expressed embarrassment over last month’s “Burn A Quran Day” threatened by a small Florida church, he said.
Several of the center’s neighbors say they haven’t had much contact with the center’s members, but no one expressed any upset.
David Christian, who owns a house two doors down Lamar Street and lives just down Vineville from the new mosque, said he’s glad to see someone repairing the unique, red-brick, columned building and hopes the landscaping is spruced up to match.
“I know that they’ve been doing some renovations,” Christian said. “I wasn’t sure if they had actually started or not.”
He hadn’t talked to anyone from the Islamic Center but welcomes it to the area.
“I think it’s fine. I mean, it’s a free country,” Christian said.
Religious extremists of any stripe draw lots of attention, but the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are undoubtedly peaceful — including those who have lived here for years, he said.
“They’re your neighbors, whether you know it or not,” Christian said.
Randy Callaway, who lives diagonally across Vineville Avenue from the center, said he noticed a number of families with children going into services, but he hadn’t spoken with anyone there.
“They seem to be quiet neighbors,” he said with a chuckle. “I welcome anybody who’ll take care of the property, because it sat empty for a while.
“I hope they’re a great addition to the neighborhood. I’m kind of excited, maybe, to learn more about them.”
Mirza Ahmed said the community knows Islam is a controversial subject, with many people worrying that it espouses violence.
But those are misconceptions, and anyone is welcome to come hear the real message for themselves, he said.
“Our doors are always open anyway,” Mirza Ahmed said.
People start gathering for Friday prayers about 1:15 p.m., and there’s often Arabic or Quran study groups meeting there in the evening, Mirza Ahmed said.
The core beliefs of Islam are of the primacy and unity of God, as announced by human prophets. Among those are many revered figures familiar to readers of the Bible: Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, he said.
He leafed through a bilingual Quran — Arabic and English — as he described the similarities.
“It is no different from what Christians do,” Mirza Ahmed said. “When Christians worship God, we worship God.
STILL YOU CAN SEE CHRISIANS HATE AGAINST MUSLIMS.