Across Eastern Massachusetts Sunday, Muslims gathered, shoulder to shoulder, to begin afternoon prayers. But at the back of the room at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, a crowd of Christians, Jews, agnostics, and atheists had gathered to observe.
On the first Massachusetts Open Mosque Day, hundreds of non-Muslims attended the center and 17 other area mosques to observe religious practices and ask questions about the faith and its perception.
“We need to engage in genuine community, camaraderie, fraternity, sorority: people coming together, learning about their cultures, their backgrounds, what people are struggling with,” said Sheikh Yasir Fahmy, the senior imam at the cultural center, in an interview.
“I think a lot of the sentiments that may enter into a person’s heart out of fear, or worry, or concern, or anxiety is genuinely rooted in just not knowing who people are,” Fahmy continued. “But when we come to break those barriers, you see a lot more beauty and harmony and commonality between cultures and individuals.”
At the center, Muslims and non-Muslims sat together to drink chai and eat sambusas, children played games and tasted ice cream, women and girls tried on headscarves, and people took home free paperback copies of the Koran.
Mohammed Lali, a Jamaica Plain resident who immigrated to the United States from Tanzania in 1998, said he was moved by the large turnout.
“I didn’t expect we would have this [many] people,” said Lali, 40, who teaches the Koran to children at the cultural center and was there with his 9-year-old daughter, Muthana.
“There’s a lot of trash talk about us,” he said. “But today maybe they come over, they look at us, how we do it, how we worship. It’s totally different from what they hear from the news, maybe, sometimes. We don’t promote violence.”
While mosques are always open to the public, Sunday’s event was a declaration that “they are part of the fabric of the Commonwealth and an inclusive part of this community,” said John Robbins, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Massachusetts, in a telephone interview.
Last year, the FBI reported a dramatic increase in the number of anti-Muslim crimes in the United States, and President Trump’s efforts to ban travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries have stoked controversy about Islam.
“The Massachusetts Muslim community opens its doors today and every day to combat the pervasive fear that so many Americans feel about their faith,” said Robbins.
Robbins said Sunday’s open house elicited a positive reaction among guests, and organizers hope to make it an annual event. “Certainly in a climate of fear and suspicion, its easy to demonize people you have never met. . . . strongest antidote of hatred is genuine understanding,” said Robbins.
At Cambridge’s Islamic Society of Boston, neighbors filled an upstairs room, sitting cross-legged, barefoot or in stockings, on a plush orange-red carpet.
Above the mosque’s open front door, a sign read, “You are welcome here.”
‘Today maybe they come over, they look at us, how we do it, how we worship. It’s totally different from what they hear from the news, maybe, sometimes. We don’t promote violence.’Mohammed Lali, at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center
Belmont resident Ruth Smullin said she had come to show solidarity with the Muslim community. “What brought me out here, more than anything, is the terrible things that our current president is saying about certain groups of people in this country,” including Muslims, Smullin said. “All people should be treated equally in the country; that is what this country means to me.”
More than 400 people visited the Cambridge mosque, according to Courtney Golloher, the wife of the mosque’s community development coordinator, Omar Rashed.
“We have been seeing people come in and out. As our daily prayers go on, so have our guests come in,” said Rashed. “We’ve welcomed them, we’ve got to see them, to know them, and we got to answer some questions that they have about us, about our community, about our mosque, about our prayers, about our life.”
Rashed said the Muslim community’s feelings of apprehension and anxiety in the current political climate are similar to feelings of a new kid in school whom nobody likes, nobody trusts, and nobody thinks belongs there. He said he has not experienced discrimination in Cambridge, but his sister-in-law was told to “go back to her country” outside a supermarket elsewhere in Greater Boston.
At the cultural center in Roxbury, Leeza Negelev, 31, of Jamaica Plain, said such messages helped prompt her and her husband, David Zenaty, 33, to attend the open house, which was promoted at their synagogue, Nehar Shalom.
“It’s pretty clear to me that they are under attack, and there’s a lot of hateful language and actions that I hear regularly,” Negelev said. “I oppose it, and if I have an opportunity to show up for this community that I care about, then I’m definitely going to do it.”
Denise Monks, 58, of West Roxbury, came to the cultural center among about a dozen congregants from St. Mary of the Angels Church in Egleston Square to offer support.
“For me, it’s the one God,” Monks said. “We are all following . . . the path that God has taught us, and in such, I’m not going to label an entire group of people based on what a few are doing.”Globe correspondent John Hilliard contributed to this report. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyCFox. Aimee Ortiz can be reached email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Aimee_Ortiz.