The new congregation moving into the former Epiphany Lutheran Church has a lot of work to do. The altar that once was at the southeast end of the worship hall is gone and the faithful who will worship there in coming years must face northeast – toward Mecca.

The benches that once faced the wall closest to Route 8 have been removed and are being stored, along with other Christian articles of faith left behind by the church’s former owners. In place of benches, a custom carpet is being ordered. Once installed, the faithful will kneel on the floor in rows, facing what once was the long north side of the chapel to say their prayers, faces down before God.

Worshipers say the direction to Mecca is roughly 53 degrees, northeast.

The Unity Center of North East Ohio is moving a mere 4 miles east from its current mosque in Brecksville, but the move marks a huge change for the congregation, as well as an investment in the future.

The group raised $775,000 cash to purchase the former church last November and is planning $200,000 worth of renovations.

The central location is important, as the faithful adherents of the Shia branch of Islam hail from as far away as Cleveland, Youngstown and Canton. Many are professionals with deep American roots, such as Mohammed Sohrabi and Ali Izad.

Both in their 50s, Sohrabi is a real-estate professional and Izad is an electronics engineer who works at the NASA Lewis Research Center. They have been working with other volunteers in their congregation to clean up and renovate the 57-year-old building.

The group’s trustee is Dr. Tasneem Khimji, an Akron resident and the wife of co-founder Dr. Naushad Khimji, deceased in 2007, who helped create the Unity Center in 2004 from two Cleveland groups and one from Akron.

Their current mosque in Brecksville was purchased in 2005 from the Church of the Mount, but the 5,000-square-foot structure – half on the first floor and the other half a finished basement – is now too small to serve growing needs.

Sohrabi said one reason for the expansion is to serve the area’s growing population of immigrants, many of whom are refugees fleeing war and persecution in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He said many of the newcomers are women who have lost brothers, husbands and fathers due to violence in far-off conflicts.

In America, the division between Shia and Sunni Muslims is a non-existent, old-world rivalry, Sohrabi says, as Unity Center members regularly attend other places of worship, such as the Islamic Center of Cleveland mosque in Parma. The mosque there recently opened a free health care clinic, open to all.

Izad repeats one of many traditional sayings he has memorized, hoping to explain his faith.

He first recites it in Farsi, the language of Persia, then in English.

"We are in this world to get connected with one another, not to disconnect."

Epiphany Lutheran Church closed last year after dwindling membership made it impossible for the congregation to pay its mortgage. The main building was erected in 1962, with two levels totaling around 11,000 square feet. An addition of 16,000 square feet on two levels was built in 2006.

The congregation attempted to raise revenue by leasing space as an adult daycare center, then as home to the Nordonia Hills Senior Center, but was forced to disband last year due to lack of funds.

It had considered selling to a Sikh congregation expanding from their temple in Bedford, but the Sikh group ended up purchasing the former Sanctuary of Praise in Twinsburg Township last year.

"I think we bought ourselves a lot of work," Sohrabi said, looking around the empty worship hall.

Sohrabi and Izad said the group hopes eventually to join the local faith community and make friends, as they have done in the Brecksville area.

One priority is to determine what to do with the boxes of Christian articles left behind by the church’s former owners. Some include Sunday School teaching materials, an organ the congregation has no use for, and Bibles packed away in a box.

"Whatever is remaining we’re treating with respect," said Sohrabi. "We’re planning to ask for opinions on what to do with it."

Yet to be determined is the fate of the crucifix-bearing lamps suspended from the worship hall ceiling.

But Sohrabi and Izad say replacing the lamps is one of the last priorities, as reconfiguring the hall will require such extensive work.

"As soon as we can invite people, we plan to invite other churches as a welcoming gesture, to introduce ourselves," said Sohrabi.

Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or emarotta@recordpub.com.