A 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 Valley 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 a Tennessee suburb.
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 to the 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.
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.
"I'm afraid our freedoms are at stake with this kind of a neighbor," resident Connie Power wrote before the hearing.
Supporters, including members of other Temecula-area houses of worship, rallied around the Islamic community and cited the contributions made by American Muslims.