In the wake of the New Zealand massacre, Muslims in Aurora reach out to neighbors

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AURORA | Dozens of Muslim men knelt, facing northeast, for the afternoon prayer at the Colorado Muslim Community Center – part of a typical day at the Mission Viejo mosque that wasn’t so typical on Saturday.

Just behind the rows of men sat Timothy Bradford – a Mormon – with four of his five children, who wrestled silently on the golden carpet. And just behind them: Over a dozen non-Muslims, sitting on fold-up chairs, who were invited into the Islamic holy space to see how the prayer took place.

The minutes of prayer were just part of the CMCC’s open house Saturday, where hundreds of Aurora Muslims and non-Muslims mingled over ethnic foods and educational forums about Islam in the sleepy subdivision.

Non-Muslim women were shown how to wear hijabs, and free golden Qur’ans were handed out.

The genial event inside the center’s high-ceilinged gymnasium was a stark contrast to the  scene in Churchchrist, New Zealand. There an anti-Muslim terrorist had massacred 50 Muslims  just hours before.

The tragedy did not inhibit the CMCC’s plans to open its doors Saturday, said Imam Karim AbuZaid, an Egyptian-born religious scholar with a blended blond-and-gray beard.

Rather, he said, the violence affirmed a religious principle of his: It is the responsibility of Muslims to make their surrounding community feel comfortable and secure with their presence.

In this case, scores of Mission Viejo and Aurora locals spent their Saturday learning basic information about Muslims from their neighbors – for example, when Muslims pray five times a day, or what jihad means. It’s a struggle of some kind.

Mike Oliver, 64, read information about Islam’s history from a series of posters. He’s lived in Mission Viejo for 30 years, he said. This is Aurora. He has long been familiar with seeing women wearing headscarves and hijabs in the neighborhood.

“What we don’t know about each other can make us intolerant,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”

That feeling was echoed by Bradford, the Mormon, who also handles public affairs for the Aurora branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He said he brought his family to the open house to build bridges between metro-area faiths.

“It was beautiful, beautiful,” he said of the afternoon prayer.

The bulk of the open house was led by Sabeel Ahmed, an Islamic scholar from Chicago.

Ahmed drew parallels between Islam and other major religions, describing how Islam considered major Jewish and Christian figures, like Moses, as Islamic prophets as well.

He also explained that, in Islam, the murder of an innocent person is considered an affront to all of humanity. He condemned the suspect implicated in the New Zealand massacre.

“Humanity has been butchered 50 times over,” he said of the murders.

AbuZaid said his community has only felt worried about their safety twice since they bought the property, a former recreation center, in 2015. Several Aurora Police monitored the open house Saturday, but no threat was ever raised.

While the event wound down, former Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman – a candidate for city mayor – arrived to show solidarity with the victims of the massacre this week.

He said the tragedy is felt in Islamic communities everywhere, including Aurora, and added that Aurora is a place where Muslims should feel at home.

By late afternoon the visitors left the mosque, and volunteers began to take away booths and tables.

But one table remained, including Ahmed, AbuZaid and a 58-year-old Aurora woman named Ava, who declined to give her last name to the Sentinel for privacy concerns.

Ahmed filmed a question-and-answer session to address Ava’s questions about Islam, namely terrorism perpetuated by Muslims invoking the Qur’an’s teachings.

Ahmed and AbuZaid patiently described their perspectives about Islam and much of Islamic life, from what sharia law means to the status of women in Islam.

Soon, the notably civil debate was all that was left of the open house – and when Ahmed and AbuZaid excused themselves from the table, they left their left their phone numbers to answer any more questions Ava might still have.

She said she’d call and visit to continue the debate – exactly what the religious leaders hoped when they open their doors.