LOS ANGELES – Opponents of a proposed mosque in the Southern California city of Temecula collected hundreds of signatures, bombarded city planners with angry letters and e-mails, and even staged protests with bullhorns and dogs.
None of it worked.
The City Council approved plans early Wednesday for the 25,000-square-foot, two-story mosque after a nine-hour meeting that included rants against Islam as well as technical debates about traffic concerns and flood plains.
The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley is one of several across the U.S. that has seized the nation's attention in recent months as controversy raged over plans for a $100 million mosque and educational center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. A mosque planned in the suburbs of Nashville, Tenn., has also sparked a dispute.
The Temecula center has owned the land for years but didn't encounter resistance until planning work on the mosque coincided with debate over the New York site, putting 150 Muslim families at the center of a bitter fight, said Imam Mahmoud Harmoush.
Some residents worried the California mosque would be a center for radical Islam and add to traffic woes in the rapidly developing region. The mosque spent more than $17,000 in the past year, which included studies on the 4.3-acre site to address code concerns raised by its opponents, mosque leaders said.
"It's amazing how people shift their positions and really don't listen," Harmoush said. "They say, 'Maybe somewhere they are mutilating women, somewhere they are beating their wives.' If somebody did something in Jordan or Pakistan or Iran, that doesn't mean American Muslims will do it here."
Opponents said they would meet Thursday to discuss whether to file a legal challenge over a parking issue.
They insist their protest is not based on religion but instead on concerns about increased traffic on an already overburdened road, and flooding issues that could impact the mosque's neighbors — two Christian churches.
In response, the City Council modified the construction permit to include traffic reviews every five years and ban the use of external speakers that could be used for calls to prayer.
Those modifications will be helpful for residents who will be closely watching the mosque for problems, said George Rombach, a member of Concerned American Citizens, which was formed to oppose the mosque.
"Part of the victory last night was it gave us more tools to do that — but it's totally un-American to punish somebody for something they haven't done," said Rombach, who said he was not motivated by religious bias.
Mano Bakh, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen who rejected the Islamic faith of his childhood, founded Concerned American Citizens and said he remained suspicious of why so much space was needed to worship.
"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 12-year-old Muslim boy beheading someone, and others included quotations from the Quran, Islam's holy book.
Those who support the mosque believe the debate over the Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York contributed to the backlash against their project.
The Temecula mosque spent years raising funds for the project, Harmoush said. The families currently worship in a 15,000-square-foot space that is too small, he said.
The mosque held open houses and community forums and invited residents to break the Ramadan fast with them this year to try to lessen opposition to the plan, but it didn't work, Harmoush said.
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 and attended raucous hearings about the project. At one event last summer, protesters were asked to bring their dogs based on the idea that Muslims believe dog saliva is impure.
The project was approved, despite the protests.
"That's the beauty of America. It's a good place to put a mosque anywhere as long as we meet the requirements of the city and the state, all the ordinances," said Hadi Nael, chairman of the mosque board. "This is a great country — everybody has the freedom of speech and freedom of religion."
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.
Temecula is in Riverside County, about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and has a population of about 105,000.
Associated Press Writer Amy Taxin in Orange County contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects acreage to 4.3 instead of 4.2. Adds locator and population of Temecula. Adds contributor line.)
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