LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Southern California city decided Wednesday to allow Muslim families to build a mosque after months of angry debate over the plan that included protests, petitions and letter-writing campaigns.
The Temecula City Council voted 4-0 to approve the project after a nine-hour meeting, despite fears by opponents that the Islamic Center of Temecula could bring extremist activity to the region about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, said some of the opposition was hateful.
"After this decision, we all need to work together to restore the fellowship of the citizens," he said. "We need to heal ourselves."
The controversy played out against similar outcries over ongoing plans for a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York, and opposition to a new mosque in the Nashville, Tenn., suburb of Murfreesboro.
Muslims in Murfreesboro have endured marches and a lawsuit, while those in another Tennessee town withdrew a mosque proposal in May after residents mounted a campaign against rezoning the property.
In Temecula, the Islamic Center was formed in 1998, and its members have been worshipping in a warehouse for a decade. The group plans a 25,000-square-foot, two-story mosque that will be built in two stages and feature two minarets topped with crescent moons.
Leaders of the mosque reacted council's decision with relief and joy and seemed ready to put the angry debate behind them. The mosque spent more than $17,000 in 2010 on the planning process, said Hadi Nael, chairman of the moque's board.
"This is a great country and everybody has the freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I do welcome the opposition, honestly," Nael said. "I look at the sky and I look at God and think, Well, maybe God has a purpose."
Supporters have asked the city to host forums to heal the community after the rancorous debate, Syed said.
Opponents in Temecula feared the mosque will be a center for radical Islam and attract Muslims from all over the region who have a political agenda. They also cited increased traffic as a concern.
Mano Bakh, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen who rejected the Islamic faith of his childhood, founded a group called Concerned American Citizens to protest the planned mosque.
Opponents intended to meet Thursday to decide whether to challenge the City Council decision in court over parking issues.
"A 25,000-square-foot building for less than 150 families, where is the logic? That tells you something," Bakh said. "It is in my opinion a center of radicalization."
A number of residents sent letters and petitions to the city Planning Commission criticizing Islam. One letter included a photograph that purportedly showed a young Muslim boy beheading someone and others included quotations from the Quran, Islam's holy book.
In a nod to concerns about traffic and noise, the council modified the conditions of the permit to include a traffic review every five years and banned external speakers for calls to prayer and other announcements.
Many opponents insisted their objections were not founded in bias but on those mundane issues.
George Rombach, a member of Concerned American Citizens, said he considered the council's decision a win because of the modifications. He would have challenged the building, even if it had been a Christian church, he said.
"Anyone who was just opposed to the mosque because it's about Islam would consider this a complete loss," he said. "Last night was a total and complete victory. The system worked."
The Planning Commission approved the project in December, but Rombach appealed to the City Council, arguing that other houses of worship were held to more stringent land-use requirements — a claim rebuffed by city officials.
Last year, residents flooded the city with letters about the mosque and attended raucous hearings about the project.
Supporters, including members of other Temecula-area houses of worship, rallied around the Islamic community and cited the contributions made by American Muslims.
"The hallmark of our country is that we allow all faiths and beliefs to be practiced and that we, as a country, tend to give people the benefit of the doubt until they prove differently," Ada Hand wrote to the commission.
(This version CORRECTS Revises throughout. Adds background on other mosque projects in country. Adds quote from mosque opponents, meeting to decide on possible lawsuit. Corrects to say mosque will feature minarets, not domes. Adds byline. changes dateline. Will be updated.)
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