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Islamic Society Fights for Prayer Space

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Tensions continue to run high at London's City University where the Islamic Society refuses to surrender its struggle for prayer space after months of disagreement with officials.

Some Muslim students, upset at the lack of private space, began gathering in front of the main building in Northampton Square last month for prayers. Kneeling on large blue tarps, the sessions draw hundreds of men for Jumu'ah (Friday sermon), and gain attention from students and passersby.

"Praying is like adding water to the trees," said Saleh Patel, President of the Islamic Society (iSoc), stressing the high-importance of prayer to the Islamist faith. "A person who doesn't pray, cannot truly call themselves a Muslim."

During a press conference held Thursday, Patel addressed the public after advising fellow Muslims to avoid discussing the issue. He said the conference was meant to encourage dialogue and "to express our side of the argument."

The Islington-based campus opened a multi-faith prayer facility in its main building after the Islamic prayer rooms in Gloucester Building were closed due to a November stabbing incident, which left one Muslim student with a fractured skull.

Members of iSoc met with the university in December and discussed moving to a safer location in the center of campus. A tour was taken and iSoc claims the university promised four rooms in the main building, where instead, a multi-faith space opened.

Patel gave credit to the university's efforts, but explained his stance that Muslims are able to pray in all but four places: graveyards, bathrooms, stables of camels, and buildings designated for the worship of other Gods other than Allah.

City University defended its policy on prayer facilities saying they conferred with Muslim scholars over the multi-faith room and hoped the new space would help people to learn from each other. The space is a designated area for all faiths and offers two rooms with adjoining facilities for washing, according to Muslim religious custom.

Acting Vice-Chancellor Julius Weinberg addressed the issue by sending a campus-wide e-mail on February 19th. He said: "Many of our Muslim students are using the new facilities, however, we are aware that some students still have concerns. We are in discussion with our student community and its representatives regarding the options available for prayer and reflection, our aim is to provide space for reflection and prayer for all our students, of any faith, or none."

Yet according to iSoc, there have been no such discussions, and they claim requests for meetings have been ignored. The issue has spawned debate among students.

"Maybe the university should consider a separate facility that could accommodate to their needs, as I know Muslim brothers and sisters use the rooms regularly for congregational prayers and Friday sermons," said Meliha Hayat, an undergraduate student at City University. "If the university were able to provide such facilities, then I think it will have successfully accommodated everyone's needs."

City University later offered two smaller rooms for separate prayer, but iSoc said the rooms would not be able to accommodate hundreds of Muslims. Instead, they requested to have back their old space at Gloucester Building - an idea that was quickly rejected.

John Tibble, Director of Student Services said: "It was a consensus between the police and the university and the Islamic Society that the prayer rooms should move." Explaining the lack of space on campus, he continued: "We've done something that was temporary and it was always a temporary solution to move prayer facilities out of Gloucester and to put them somewhere more central."

During the press conference, Patel said they were upset that the Gloucester Building is still being used for classes. He said: "If it's unsafe for one group of people, it's unsafe for other groups."

Patel then made his apologies to non-Muslims. "We apologize for any inconvenience, annoyance and noise pollution. It is not our fault we have been forced to pray outside. We simply want to pray. Is that too much to ask?"

A meeting between iSoc and university officials has been scheduled for today. As for the outcome, Patel said: "Allah knows best."

City University is based in central London and currently has more than 21,000 students enrolled from 156 countries.

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Filed by Jed Bickman