An international megachurch whose founder has been accused of concealing child sexual abuse has bought a renowned former theatre in north London after a campaign to prevent it from being converted into an Islamic centre.
Hillsong, which until earlier this year counted the pop star Justin Bieber among its members, plans to hold Sunday services at the site. The church operates in 30 countries and has 12 branches in the UK.
The Golders Green Hippodrome, where Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier, Vera Lynn and Status Quo performed, had been owned since 2017 by Markaz El Tathgheef El Eslami (Centre for Islamic Enlightening).
It paid £5.25m for the Grade II-listed building and planned to use it for conferences, seminars, youth activities, English-language classes, after-school clubs and prayers.
But some residents objected, saying it would cause traffic congestion. A minority went further, suggesting that a Muslim presence in the neighbourhood could be dangerous and was undesirable.
In July this year Barnet council deferred a decision on Markaz El Tathgheef El Eslami’s proposal. Lawyers for the Islamic group had written to the council claiming religious discrimination.
Hillsong said it aimed to be “a positive influence” in the area. “We recognise the significance of the building to the community and look forward to playing our part by adding to the work of local churches and charities through our social action programme,” a spokesperson told Jewish News.
Alan Jacobs, of the Golders Green Residents Environment Group, which led the campaign against the mosque plan, said the organisation was pleased there was a resolution to the Hippodrome’s future.
“For the vast majority of local residents this was never about the user but the use,” he said. Hillsong would use the building as a church on Sundays, whereas the Islamic centre had applied to be open from 8am until 11.30pm every day.
The Hippodrome, which closed its doors as a theatre in 1968, was home to the BBC concert orchestra until 2004. It was later used by an evangelical Christian group before being bought by Markaz El Tathgheef El Eslami.
The proposal to convert it into an Islamic centre divided the local community, which has a large Jewish presence. One objection lodged with the council claimed: “This is going to force the Jewish population to run away, and make this beautiful neighbourhood too crowded with loads of burqas and veils.”
Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, of the Golders Green Alyth Reform congregation, said such comments were “threatening and misleading”.
A letter from an interfaith forum, signed in November 2017 by representatives of Anglican, Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, Quakers, Methodists, rabbis, imams and Sikhs, said they “unanimously deplored and condemned the hostile and at times racist response to the new Islamic centre’s opening”.
Hillsong’s Australian founder, Brian Houston, 67, was charged in August with concealing sexual abuse allegedly committed by his late father, Frank Houston, in the 1970s. He has denied the allegations.
Houston, a friend of Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, stepped down from the board of Hillsong in September but remains a “global senior pastor”.