Message of the Gospel 'at stake' in Farmersville cemetery flap, former Muslim says

by Sara Horn |

(REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly)A Palestinian woman and a girl carry flowers to a family grave on Eid al-Fitr at a cemetery in Gaza City July 28, 2014. In Farmersville, Texas, a proposal to build a Muslim cemetery is being met by resistance from some, while others see it as an opportunity to demonstrate religious liberty.

FARMERSVILLE, Texas (Christian Examiner) - Concerned citizens who packed into a local high school cafeteria for a town hall meeting in Farmersville last week to discuss a proposed Muslim cemetery agree on one thing - there is very little agreement to be found in the meeting itself, but they can agree fear and divided opinions remain.

With a population just over 3,000, the town made national headlines this summer when a proposal for to build a Muslim cemetery was brought before a May 28 Planning and Zoning meeting. Alarmed citizens have shown up at every public meeting since -- with standing room only -- to protest and voice concern.

Among those who are divided are two of the town's Baptist pastors. Both men offered opinions on an Aug. 4 town hall meeting -- the most recent attempt by the city and the Islamic Association of Collin County to quell fears and what they have said is misinformation.

TWO SOUTHERN BAPTIST PASTORS MILES APART IN REACTION

Pastors of two Southern Baptist churches in Farmersville share different views of the cemetery proposal, and of the climate in the community generated by the proposal.

(Photo by M.R. Patterson/arlingtoncemetery.net)Specialist Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, U.S. Army, was killed in action supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom Aug. 6, 2007 in Baqubah, Iraq along with three others. A Muslim, he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church, told Christian Examiner he looks at the situation as an opportunity to support religious liberty for all. David Meeks, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, told Christian Examiner he has been critical of plans for the cemetery and does not trust Muslims.

"I think the town hall meeting pretty accurately revealed the division of opinion in our community," said Barber, who described his attempts to be a calming voice for his congregation and community in the wake of erupting tensions. "I think there were people who were opposed to the cemetery who represented that position as well as it could be represented, and some [were] there who represented that position as poorly as it could be represented."

Barber told Christian Examiner  when the time came for questions from the public at the meeting, there were some who spoke in respectful opposition to the cemetery, based not on an "anti-religious liberty case but from a procedural or "land use case."

"On the worst side of things, someone yelled 'you're not welcome here...' people just doing shameful things that weren't helpful and representing the worst aspect of our society," Barber said.

Barber said some in Farmersville are afraid, and he understands, given a recent terrorist event in nearby Garner, Texas, where two men opened fire at an art exhibit depicting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Still, he's urging members of his church as well as those in the community not to see all Muslims "as enemies to drive away but to regard Muslims as people in need of Jesus, to embrace and invite to know Jesus as their Savior."

"In order to do that, I've tried to make a biblical case and a constitutional case for religious liberty, that we support religious liberty for all people, and also help think about how they can share the gospel with Muslims," Barber said.

MUSLIM SPOKESPERSON EXPLAINS NEED FOR CEMETERY

Khalil Abdur-Rashid, spokesman for the IACC and a professor at Southern Methodist University, told the Dallas Morning News he was surprised by the opposition after the initial concept for the cemetery was unanimously approved at the May meeting.

"There will be no type of religious services at the cemetery," said Abdur-Rashid. "We're forbidden from saying prayers on a grave or a cemetery. We must comply with all state and local regulations."

Muslim burial practice does not allow for the dead to be embalmed, and instead, Abur-Rashid said, bodies are washed in warm water at the funeral home, shrouded and placed in coffins, and then entombed in concrete vaults buried 6 to 7 feet under ground. According to the Texas Funeral Service Commission, the state does not have a requirement for embalming.

Despite assurances by the IACC that there are no other plans for the 35-acre tract of land they have purchased for the cemetery, many Farmersville citizens who oppose the cemetery aren't convinced.

CRITIC BELIEVES MUSLIMS EVENTUALLY WILL PRESS FOR 'SHARIA LAW' IN FARMERSVILLE

Meeks has been an outspoken critic of the proposed cemetery. He sees the cemetery as the beginning of what he perceives as a larger plan by the IACC and doesn't believe the organization is telling the truth when they say there are no plans other than the cemetery.

"We're disappointed the community didn't find out about [the cemetery], until the land had already been pre-approved," Meeks told Christian Examiner, adding that a petition of several hundred signatures is circulating see if there is a legal course of action that can be taken to prevent the purchase from going through. "We would have liked to have known sooner to do something about it."

Farmersville is known as the home of World War II's most decorated soldier, Audie Murphy, who at the age of 19, received the Medal of Honor after single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945, and then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition. He received every military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism.

The pastor said some of Murphy's descendents are members of his church, and they've threatened to remove their relative's memorabilia and name recognition from the town if the cemetery goes through.

"As a Baptist and as a minister, I've been harassed and told that there should be such a thing as religious liberty for all religions," Meeks said. "I wouldn't protest hindu or buddhist temples. We have a buddhist temple, [but] I don't believe Islam qualifies as a legitimate religion. John Quincy Adams said something along those lines."

Meeks said he wants to know "with 200,000 Muslims in Dallas and 22,000 in Collin county, what happens when they get economic and political clout? They will be pressing for the opportunity to practice Sharia law, which is what they've done in every case where they've existed."

"We're not trying to be mean to anybody, and I understand the biblical answer, to love your neighbors, but America faced the Nazis in World War II and I see this [situation] as being similar if not more dangerous," Meeks told Christian Examiner.

FORMER MUSLIM TELLS FARMERSVILLE CHURCH THE MESSAGE OF THE GOSPEL 'IS AT STAKE' 

Barber sees it differently. He's encouraged his congregation to look for ways to reach out to Muslims, and recently invited local Christian pastor Afshin Ziafat, a former Muslim, to come speak to his congregation about sharing Christ with Muslims.

Ziafat, pastor of Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, told the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's Leadership Summit last spring of his family's difficult transition from Iran to Houston, Texas in the early eighties. Just one "Christian lady," his English tutor, was kind to him, even giving him his very own Bible. Ten years later, Ziafat accepted Christ.

"Had any other American given me that New Testament, I would have thrown it away," Ziafat said. "Because I didn't trust them. You want to win a Muslim for Christ? I believe you have to earn the right to be heard. And she did it by the way she was loving me."

He passionately encouraged Christians to reach across religious and racial lines.

""Racial reconciliation is not just a good idea because racial equality is a politically correct idea, but it's because the message of the Gospel is at stake," Ziafat said. "The name of Jesus is at stake. And so the Gospel tells us that it's by grace alone that we can be restored to God."

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