Former Christian house of worship finds new life: As an Islamic house of worship

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

The once-Mountainview Evangelical Free Church on the New Scotland-Voorheesville line shut down over a year ago. 

NEW SCOTLAND — When the Mountainview Evangelical Free Church on the New Scotland-Voorheesville line was closing its doors in November 2019, its lead pastor, Brian Wilson, said that a church never really closes. Sure, the building can be boarded up and abandoned.

“[But] it’s a misnomer to say you’re closing a church, although it may appear that way from the outside. The church isn’t a building, the church is the people, and that’s not something that is going to close,” 

And soon, Wilson’s church will be reborn as the Al Zahra Center, an Islamic house of worship. It needs a special-use permit from the New Scotland Planning board to open.

“They operated for a number of years, a religious facility, so it’s not like we’re talking about a different use,” Charles Voss, chairman of the New Scotland Planning Board, said during the board’s Feb. 2 meeting.

Even the sign will stay the same; just the words on the sign will change, it was noted at the meeting.

Wahab Khaliqi, the applicant on the special-use permit, politely declined an Enterprise interview. Once Khaliqi gets required information to Building Inspector Jeremy Cramer, a public hearing on the special-use permit will be held,  tentatively scheduled for the planning board’s next monthly meeting, March 2.

Mountainview’s decline was illustrative of a broader trend in the country: Just 47 percent of Americans reported belonging to a church or synagogue — which is down from “an all-time low” of 50 percent in 2018 according to Gallup; in 1999, that number was 70 percent.

The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, said that, in 2019, eight of the 10 “most post-Christian cities in America” are located in the Northeast, two are in New York State, and Albany-Schenectady-Troy is considered one city — it’s also the sixth most post-Christian city in America.

However, in the next half century, the Muslim faith is projected to overtake Christianity as the world’s largest religion, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study.

“Indeed, Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the overall world population between 2015 and 2060 and, in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group,” the Pew report said. An estimated 3.45 million Muslims live in the United States, 1.1 percent of the overall population, according to Pew.

The main reasons for Islam’s growth, according to Pew, “ultimately involve simple demographics. To begin with, Muslims have more children than members of the seven other major religious groups analyzed in the study. Muslim women have an average of 2.9 children, significantly above the next-highest group (Christians at 2.6) and the average of all non-Muslims (2.2). In all major regions where there is a sizable Muslim population, Muslim fertility exceeds non-Muslim fertility.” 

Before Wilson was hired by Mountainview, in September 2018, the church had been without a lead pastor for two years. And during that two-year period, there had been a decline in both  membership and “energy,” Sam Huggard, the superintendent of the New England District of the Evangelical Free Church of America, told The Enterprise at the time of Mountainview’s closing.  

The presence of a permanent pastor in the church wasn’t enough to attract new members. In 2010, Mountainview had about 50 congregants; at the end, there were about 30 members of the church, a 40-percent decline in membership in just under a decade.

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