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Hotly contested mosque to open Friday in Tennessee

Erik Schelzig / AP file

A worker walks out of the construction site of a mosque being built in Murfreesboro, Tenn., June 21, 2012.

A new mosque outside of Nashville, Tenn. that has been hotly contested for two years – and subjected to a lawsuit, arson and a bomb threat – is scheduled to open for prayers on Friday, The Associated Press reported.

Islamic Center of Murfreesboro board member Saleh Sbenaty told the AP Tuesday that Rutherford County officials issued a 30-day occupancy permit that will allow use of the building while the final permit is pending.

"We're thrilled," Sbenaty said. "We hope everybody will be as happy and thrilled as we are."


The congregation hopes to hold prayer this week, as part of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which includes fasting during the day, The Tennessean reported. Ramadan ends Aug. 18.

Construction was nearly shut down after a Rutherford County judge ruled in May that the meeting where mosque construction was approved was not sufficiently advertised to the public.

Tennessee Muslims feel blessed this Ramadan 

Last month, federal prosecutors stepped in to protect the religious liberty of mosque members. U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin argued the county judge had illegally created a separate "mosque standard" for public notice that only applied to the Islamic center.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the mosque, allowing construction and permitting to move ahead. The temporary permit is good until mid-October and will allow contractors time to complete the landscaping and some other last details.

The new 12,000-square-foot mosque replaces an existing 2,100-square-foot building that serves about 250 local families and many Muslim students attending Middle Tennessee State University. Worshippers regularly have to stand in the parking lot during prayers because the current space is too small.

Although Muslims have worshipped at the existing mosque for 30 years, protests erupted shortly after plans for the new mosque were approved in May 2010.

Opponents spent two years in court trying to force the county to halt construction. Attorneys for the opposition claimed that Islam is not a valid religion and that mosque members were part of a plot to overthrow the U.S. Constitution and replace it with Islamic law. Those claims were thrown out by the local judge.

In an email on Tuesday, lead plaintiff Kevin Fisher wrote, "History will one day judge whether we were wrong about this mosque, or whether we were right all along."

Sbenaty said mosque leaders have met with some of their opponents over the past two years.

"We tried to calm their fears, but they believe at heart that we are here to do evil things," he said. "We're hoping this will go down with time, but it's going to take a while."

Controversy about the mosque played a role in state elections, as well. Lou Ann Zelenik, Republican candidate for Congress based her campaign on her opposition to Islam and, more specifically, the mosque, even though it was outside her congressional district, Reuters reported.

Tennessee candidates engage in anti-Islam contest

Ultimately, Zelenik lost to U.S. Representative Diane Black in the primary vote last week. Black also opposed the mosque but said she would respect the First Amendment – freedom of religion.  

Currently, the only protest is a row of white crosses lining the front lawn of a Baptist church next door, according to wpln.org, Nashville Public Radio.

 

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