Plans to convert a former Methodist youth centre into a new Islamic centre in Belfast have sparked debate.
Leaders of the Belfast Islamic Centre (BIC) unveiled plans on Monday night at Wellington Park Hotel to submit a planning application for the conversion of Aldersgate House, which previously belonged to the Methodist Church.
Dr Saleem Tareen, BIC chairman, said: “As the Muslim community in Northern Ireland increases, so does our requirement for additional space. Our existing premises on Wellington Park are no longer fit for purpose and BIC has been striving to secure an alternate place for its activities and worship for some time.”
Alliance councillor Paula Bradshaw said she was “thrilled” about the plans.
“We need to ensure that Belfast continues to evolve as an open, welcoming and inclusive city,” she said.
UUP councillor Jeffrey Dudgeon was also pleased.
The plans involve public areas and community engagement which will be “especially valuable in bringing about integration”, he said.
SDLP MLA Claire Hanna agreed the proposal was “very welcome”, adding that BIC engagement with politicians is “a sign of the multi-cultural and mutually tolerant community that is south Belfast”.
But others noted Christians would not enjoy the same freedoms in the Islamic world - and expressed annoyance that a complaint from a former BIC leader recently resulted in the prosecution of Pastor James McConnell.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson said: “In our society - unlike many Moslem dominated countries - freedom of religion is a right which we dearly defend, though it is a pity that the former head of the Islamic centre did not believe that Pastor McConnell should be afforded that right.”
He said that normal planning regulations should not be relaxed for the application and that no public funds should support it.
Pastor McConnell said: “It is wonderful that you can plan to create a new Islamic centre like this in Belfast. If I was in the Islamic world I could not buy land to build a church, or worship Christ, rap a door, give out a tract or tell someone of their need of the gospel of Christ. They should take note of the liberty they enjoy here.”
Blogger David Vance added: “The plan for a larger Islamic Centre in Belfast shows that liberty and freedom for all to worship is still a central part of our western values. Sadly, in the Islamic world, Churches and Synagogues are not welcome and one hopes that Belfast’s Muslim community will recognise our enlightened ways. I would also hope that gender segregation will be clearly prohibited in this Centre as I am sure the NI Equality Commission would otherwise be deeply concerned”.