When Imam Azhar al Qassimi stopped barely 20 minutes into his Friday sermon, many among the devout were surprised. Surprise turned to astonishment when they saw a man in a Christian priest's robes walk into the jummah meeting.
It was Father Sanu Puthussery, vicar of St Antony's Church in Vechoor, Kerala's Kottayam district. The Syro-Malabar Church priest walked up to the podium, which the imam quickly vacated, and for the next eight minutes, and addressed the 250-odd faithful.
'It was an unbelievably holy experience,' Fr Puthussery said later about an event being portrayed as a milestone in communal amity and inspiration a flood-battered Kerala needs as it inches towards normality. 'I had gone to meet the imam at the Juma Masjid next to our church to thank him and the Muslim community who helped me feed and take care of the 580 flood-hit families who had taken refuge at our church,' he said.
The imam asked him to wait through the Friday prayers, kept his sermon short and left the floor to the Christian priest. Faced with a food shortage for the 2,000-odd people sheltering at the church, Fr Puthussery had approached the imam on August 17. He 'mobilized food, medicines and volunteers' till the families left nine days later.
In a video clip of his thanksgiving address, Fr Puthussery is heard saying: 'This mosque came as God's own hands to help those who took refuge at my church.' He said, 'I had never even entered a mosque until then.... I spoke about brotherhood.... I could see tears roll down the cheeks of some elderly people.'
The imam said: 'Humanity doesn't have man-made boundaries. If we can continue to live by the same level of love and brotherhood, we can convert this planet into heaven.' After the floods, Muslims youths had cleaned up temples. A church and a temple were thrown open for Muslims to offer Bakrid prayers as their mosques were under water.
Yassar Arafat, who had led a group of volunteers in rescue and relief and helped at the church, said the vicar's address was 'a moment everyone at the mosque would cherish through their lives'. The man who shared the story, Niyaz Nasar, said he had just happened to be at the Vechoor mosque although he usually goes to another mosque.
'Perhaps I was destined to be the messenger to reach this story to the world,' an emotional Nasar said.