London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Twenty-one mosques around the United Kingdom welcomed visitors from other faiths on Sunday as part of a nationwide initiative organized to ease tensions following recent terror attacks in Paris and rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.
The event, dubbed ‘Visit My Mosque Day,’ was organized by the Muslim Council of Britain, the most prominent Muslim umbrella organization in the UK.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, a representative from the organization’s press office said the recent period had been “a tense time for faith communities” in the UK, especially for Muslims.
“We felt it would be good to invite people of all faiths and none to come together and share cultural and religious understanding. As Islam and Muslims are often portrayed [negatively] in the media, we felt this would be a great way to dispel any myths people have about Islam,” the spokesman said.
Tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain have heightened in recent years, with the latest attacks in Paris inflaming them further amid a marked rise anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobic attacks and support for far-right nationalist groups.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, British Prime Minister David Cameron sent a letter to Muslim leaders in the country saying they had a responsibility in “explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.”
Mokdad Versi, the Council’s assistant secretary general, told Asharq Al-Awsat the organization wanted “to reach out and ease the tensions that have happened after Paris, to show the wider public who we [as Muslims] really are.”
The Council had been critical of some parts of Cameron’s letter which it said implied widespread radicalization was occurring in mosques across Britain. Versi told Asharq Al-Awsat that Sunday’s event aimed to help dispel such myths and give non-Muslim Britons a sense of “what mosques are all about.”
Visitors to mosques participating in the event were served tea and cake before taking part in a range of events designed to show everyday life at mosques around the country, including question and answer sessions about Islam and Muslims.
Louise Jones, one of the visitors to a mosque on the day of the event, told Asharq Al-Awsat it was “a shame that the sad events in Paris have created the need for an open dialogue; it should always happen.”
Another visitor, Michael Cogarty, called Visit My Mosque a “great event, which will definitely have a positive outcome.”
“The mosque is a peaceful place where good things can come out it. This needs to be understood in our society,” he said.
One of the mosques participating in the event was Finsbury Park Mosque in London, where radical preacher Abu Hamza Al-Masry, now jailed for life in the US after being convicted on terror-related charges, preached during the 2000s. Since the Paris attacks in early January it has received a number of threats, Sky News reported earlier this week.
In response, Versi said the Council had provided extra security at mosques for the event and informed the police it was taking place.
According to 2011 national survey figures, Islam is Britain’ second-largest religion, with 5 percent, or 2 million, of the country’s inhabitants counted as members of the faith. Those identifying as Christian make up 59 percent of the population, while those with no religious affiliations account for 25 percent.