A single beige demountable fitted with not much more than an air conditioner, a few chairs, and a patchwork of woven mats turned to face Mecca has become an outback symbol of religious hope. The Good Shepherd Catholic church in the remote Queensland mining town of Mount Isa has offered space in its parish building to the local Islamic community for use as a prayer room.
‘I’d rather see us united rather than divided’: Interfaith cooperation in action at Mount Isa’s Good Shepherd Parish
Muslims and Catholics pray just metres apart. “Over the years a number of people have asked ‘Is there a place or a space in Mount Isa for a prayer room?'” Father Mick Lowcock said. “A couple of the people who I know fairly well approached me and sort of said ‘Is it possible for us to use one of the rooms?'” Father Lowcock said his decision to allow the Islamic community to use the space did not come without contention. “I suppose one for the issues was, do you make it public?” he said. “You don’t want any backlash against them or against us, and there have been some concerns raised by people — even someone from out of town has rung me about it.”
Sandals and thongs on timber decking outside the prayer room. Photo: “Put off thy shoes” can be found in both the Holy Qu’ran and in the Bible. (ABC North West Qld: Hailey Renault)
According to Father Lowcock, the questions stem from misunderstanding and a fear of Islamic extremism and terrorism. “The question in the back of everyone’s mind [is] ‘What’s ISIS all about?'” he said. “I think every time people mention the word ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’, they immediately think of ISIS. “[But] rather than create the climate of fear in our world we need to create the dialogue and the climate of goodwill.”
A man in a white shirt stands in a small room with a painting of a large, square building in a courtyard hanging on the wall. Photo: Jahed Chowdhury in the prayer room with a picture of the Kaaba, the building at the centre of Al-Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca, on the wall. (ABC North West Qld: Hailey Renault)
Jahed Chowdhury is a local Muslim. He grew up in Bangladesh but has been in Australia for the past 14 years. Mr Chowdhury said, before the church opened its doors, the Mount Isa Islamic community improvised locations for prayer. “Before we got a room over here we used to go to some other friend’s place or any other place — we used to pray there,” he said. “So since we got this one, we come here all the time so that’s very fortunate for us.
“As Muslims we have to pray five times a day and that’s what we do — we gather here and pray to Allah, and we are all happy because now we openly come any time, whenever we want to.” Mr Chowdhury was aware of negative stereotypes often attached to his faith, and believed positive examples of religious harmony helped dispel the myth that Islam was dangerous. “We invite other people in [from] different faiths, so … if they want they can come and join with us and they can see what we do and how we practise, and what the real Muslims are. That’s what we want to spread — across the world — that Islam means peace,” he said.
A cream-coloured demountable building with timber steps, railings and decking. Photo: The prayer room at Good Shepherd Parish used to be set aside for the local historical society, but it is now used by Mount Isa’s Islamic community. (ABC North West Qld: Hailey Renault)
Father Lowcock said the relationship also spoke of the true multiculturalism of outback Queensland. “Last Sunday I just looked around and there were 18 different nationalities I counted just at one of our services, and I think they’re only a part of the community of Mount Isa,” he said. “The Islamic society too is made up of a lot of people from different countries. “I know some Catholics are married to Muslims so there’s a whole sense of ‘How we do show support for one another?’ in this.”
Exterior of a church, with blue-painted columns, a crook-and-cross symbol, and rose bushes growing in front of it. Photo: Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Mount Isa is hoping to lead by example. (ABC North West Qld: Hailey Renault)
Father Lowcock said, as much as the move was motivated by the need to find a space for locals to pray, it also demonstrated a symbolic gesture to bring the town closer. And he encouraged other religious leaders to follow suit. “I think there was a bit of a surprise element for people and they wondered ‘Should we be doing that?'” Father Lowcock said. “But I also think, in this day and age, [we need to] lead by some example, so we don’t just give way to the fears in our world, but we give way to what’s going to bring life.
“If this is going to bring life to our community, I’d rather see us united rather than divided, I’d rather see us somehow coming together and praying, rather than just be a community that separates people from one side of town to the other,” he said. With a shared devotion to worship, Mr Chowdhury echoed a similar statement. “We live close together and in good harmony and that’s what we are human for. Regardless of the practice, we respect each other,” he said. “All the religion is spreading the peace — nothing wrong with that, so we should love each other.”
Photo: Father Michael Lowcock has offered a space to Mount Isa’s Islamic community as a gesture of unity. (ABC North West Qld: Hailey Renault)