Prayer carpets were laid out under the soaring arches of the Washington National Cathedral early Friday for an unprecedented Muslim worship service in one of the best known churches in the United States.
Reverend Gina Campbell welcomed worshippers, declaring the Washington National Cathedral "a place of prayer for all people."
"Let us stretch our hearts and let us seek to deepen mercy for we worship the same God," she told the men and women sitting separately in rows, on the floor before her.
In the sermon, or Khutba, Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool praised religious freedom in America and lashed out against extremism, specifically mentioning Islamic militants who have slaughtered Christians in the Middle East.
"If we do not stop them at the monasteries, they will make their way to the mosques," he said.
Church leaders and their Muslim partners say they hope the Friday Jumaa prayers will send a message of interfaith brotherhood that counters extremists’ use of religion to justify hatred and strife.
The idea came to the cathedral's director of religious liturgy, Rev. Gina Campbell, and South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, who is a Muslim, when they organized an interfaith memorial service for Nelson Mandela last year.
In an interview with VOA, Rasool said he hopes some day non-Muslims will be allowed to pray according to their own traditions even in mosques in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.
“I think that we must return to the Muslim prophetic tradition in which the Prophet, may peace be upon him, invited Christians to his own mosque that he established in Medina - and to say to them, you can pray here.”
Friday's worship by Muslims in the historic American church provoked a backlash from conservative Christians.
Franklin Graham, son of evangelical leader Billy Graham, wrote on his Facebook page: “It’s sad to see a church open its doors to the worship of anything other than the One True God of the Bible.”
Just before the prayers started, a protester jumped out in front of the bank of TV cameras and shouted “Jesus died on that cross!” She was escorted away.
The carpets were arrayed diagonally in the transept, to the side of the sanctuary, so that worshipers can face in the direction of Mecca without seeing crosses or Christian icons. Muslims are not supposed to pray in view of sacred symbols alien to their faith.
Ambassador Rasool said the service is meant to be both a symbol for America's three million Muslims to feel welcomed in its predominantly Christian society, as well as for Muslims in countries where they are the majority, to show hospitality to people of minority faiths.
Despite its name, the Washington National Cathedral is not an official U.S. government church, which is prohibited by the Constitution. However, the Episcopal church, which is funded by private donations, does possess important symbolic value and regularly hosts official events, such as presidential inaugurations and funerals.