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A statement of Islamic dominance

Why do Muslims buy church buildings and replace them with mosques?

Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, which was originally a Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul, Turkey iStock/Kateryna Kolesnyk

A statement of Islamic dominance

Many in the West know that a “mosque” is a Muslim house of worship, but few fully comprehend the distinct ideology behind the aggressive Muslim pattern of building mosques, especially in non-Muslim lands.

For Muslims, the mere act of building a mosque is a theological statement of Islam’s hegemony. It is a visible declaration of Islam’s victorious advance and success. The structure itself becomes a sign of Islam’s superiority over other belief systems. Just think of the minaret towers that, not by accident, define a city’s skyline and horizon.

While many westerners may simply assume that a mosque is just a building for worshippers, it is much more than that for Muslims, especially when they turn a church building into a mosque. Granted, Hindus and Buddhists—or other religious groups—may also purchase church buildings and turn them to temples or shrines. Nevertheless, the pattern is distinctively theological in Islam and receives its authority from religious precedents and commands in the life of Muhammad.

In a recent report from Buffalo, N.Y., a Muslim group plans to create a mosque inside St. Ann Catholic Church, long known as an historic landmark. After the impressive Gothic building had been closed for five years, the Muslim group purchased it and plans to invest at least $22.5 million in its renovations. Why spend this much on an old church building? There are numerous kinds of buildings that could be purchased and turned into a mosque at far less cost—so why churches? The answer is simple: For Muslims, this is a theological statement of Islam’s superiority. Islam sees itself as a successor faith to Christianity. As Muslims understand history, Christianity recedes and Islam expands.

A couple of months earlier in Michigan, another group of Muslims purchased Detroit World Outreach Church—a megachurch building—and turned it into a mosque. Before that, the Wall Street Journal reported that, in Bridgeport, Conn., the local Islamic Community purchased the historic Georgian-style United Congregational Church and converted it into a mosque. One of the first actions of the Muslim owners was to take down the cross from the altar—a clear declaration of the new identity of the building. In Milwaukee, a Muslim group purchased a church building and before announcing the deal, removed Christian symbols. As the media reported, “religious symbols were removed from St. Adalbert, including crosses, statues and stained glass windows.” More famously, in 2020, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a clear testimony of his Islamist disposition, decided to strip Hagia Sophia, one of the most famous buildings in Christian history, of its museum status, declaring it “Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque.”

Next time you see a mosque replacing a church, remember what it means, particularly to Muslims.

The examples are plentiful, but the theological statement is clear: Islam is winning and advancing, replacing, surpassing, and suppressing older religions.

In Muhammad’s biography, he reportedly conquered his non-Muslim enemies in Mecca. Once he entered their shrine, he began stabbing their symbols and destroying their statues, as he declared, “Truth (Islam) has come and Falsehood (disbelief) has vanished.” One shrine became the Ka’ba, the most revered Muslim mosque in the world. Muhammad reportedly promised his followers, “He who builds a mosque for Allah, Allah would build for him [a house] in Paradise like it.”

Many Muslim-majority countries don’t allow building churches in Muslim lands, or at least make it extremely difficult. Their logic is that Islam is the only truthful religion.

Consider Saudi Arabia. Building churches is prohibited in the places where Muhammad presumably resided. Christians are not even allowed to enter Mecca and parts of Medina as the two most sacred cities in Islam. To avoid being labeled as religious discriminators, Saudis publicly claim: “There are no Christians here, why would you build a church?” Ironically, these same Saudis are willing to fund mosque buildings worldwide where Muslims are not found in large numbers.

Consider the examples of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. All proudly declare they are Muslim countries. They falsely claim to have no local Christians, and only allow a few church buildings exclusively for foreigners. Local Christians who abandon Islam have only one choice: underground house churches.

What about Egypt? It is a Muslim-majority country in which Coptic Christians make up 15-20 percent of the population. Until recently, Christians could never build a church without presidential permission! Even maintaining an old church building required a governor’s permission.

Many secular Westerners simply view a mosque as evidence of religious freedom and a demonstration of equality of all faiths, which is rightly a cherished value in the West. However, Muslims view it in a completely different way: Building mosques is a divinely rewarded religious duty, with a clear theological declaration of Islam’s victorious dominance.

Next time you see a mosque replacing a church, remember what it means, particularly to Muslims. They see Islam expanding and Christianity contracting. The mosque is there to offer visible proof.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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