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As Ramadan begins, controversial mosque won't be ready to open doors

By Steve Almasy and Melissa Abbey, CNN
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Thu July 19, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Imam says mosque has done nothing wrong
  • Mosque faces at least 10 days of more work before it can get an occupancy permit
  • Residents say the controversy has divided the community
  • A fierce debate over expanding the mosque began in 2010

Programming note: CNN's Soledad O'Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over a mosque in the heart of the Bible Belt. "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" airs Saturday August 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CNN.

(CNN) -- Worshippers at an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, will have to wait at least a week before they can use their new mosque, officials said Thursday.

The mosque -- subject of a two-year battle marked by legal wrangling, vandalism and anti-Muslim sentiment -- still needs to pass inspection and get its occupancy permit, mosque officials said.

"It is unfortunate that we cannot be in our building for the start of Ramadan tonight," Islamic Center of Murfreesboro officials said in a written statement. "However, it does look like we will get to enjoy most of Ramadan in our building, especially the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan, on Eid-ul-Fitr."

The release said it will take about 10 days to complete the next legal steps.

"They do have a lot of work to be done cosmetically," said David Jones, Rutherford County Building Codes director, told CNN affiliate WSMV. "We have gone through the building with them" and made suggestions, he added.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Memphis ordered Rutherford County to conduct a final inspection on the building, setting aside a local judge's ruling from June that voided a planning commission's approval.

If the structure fails to comply with inspection requirements, U.S. District Judge Todd J. Campbell ordered the county to immediately notify the Islamic Center of any deficiencies and "promptly reinspect the building" after the center informs the county it has corrected the problems.

Embattled mosque moves forward with construction

Kevin Fisher, who is opposed the mosque, told CNN affiliate WZTV on Wednesday that the issue was never about someone's right to worship but rather about whether the planning commission gave proper public notice.

"I do believe in our system. I believe in due process," he said. "You have to respect the system, even if you disagree sometimes with the decision it makes."

Sally Wall, one of the leading opponents of the mosque, said she wasn't surprised by the ruling and never thought her group would win the court case. She said she just wanted to show Muslims that they are not welcome in Murfreesboro.

Faced with the fact that the mosque is likely to be opening soon, Wall said she hopes it doesn't bring "1,000 to 2,000 Muslim families here."

She plans to keep up the fight, and said the controversy has drawn the community closer together.

"Everyone else feels the same way I do (about the mosque) except the 5% who moved here the day before yesterday," she said.

Feds investigate fire at site of future mosque

Imam Ossama Bahloul of the Islamic Center said the congregation has a three-decade history and has not caused any disruption in the city.

"No one can come to say the Islam community is radical," he told CNN. "What did we do?"

Angela Hytry, 31, said she thinks local opinions on the issue are a reflection of town demographics.

The population is split equally into two groups, she said: those who have moved to Murfreesboro -- mostly for Middle Tennessee State University or to commute to nearby Nashville -- and those whose families have been there for decades.

"People who have been here forever have a very one-sided, ignorant viewpoint of what a mosque coming to Murfreesboro would mean," she said.

The graphic designer, originally from Detroit, has been living in the suburban town for 10 years. She said Detroit has a large Muslim population and she grew up with that as a normal part of the culture.

Two years ago, the mosque was the talk of the town, but at least for her circle of friends and family it has become a fringe issue, she said.

Why do Muslims pray 5 times a day?

A municipal worker who lives near the mosque said most of the residents in her neighborhood are more concerned about the traffic than the Muslim presence. But for the majority of the town it's the term "Muslim" that counts, she said.

The 69-year-old, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue and her connection to local government, said she thinks any religious group has a right to be there and she doesn't feel threatened.

"It's just the way Muslims are perceived because of the terrorist attacks and the war," she said. "We have Buddhists here and they have their place of worship and I don't think anything's ever been said against them."

What's bothering this 11-year Murfreesboro resident the most is the discord it's brought to her town.

"It's just a mess and it's brought terrible publicity," she said. "It's a wonderful city and town, but the news is not going to portray that."

The issue is widely discussed among local residents and some people near her have even put their houses up for sale, she said, because they don't want to be near a Muslim congregation.

The fight erupted in 2010 when planning commissioners approved an expansion project.

The construction site has been vandalized several times, including by an arson attack in 2010, and federal authorities have charged a Texas man with calling in a bomb threat to the center before last year's anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

"Not welcome" was spray-painted by vandals on a sign announcing the construction of the project.

Bahloul said the mosque's opening will be another opportunity to extend "hands of peace" and thank supporters.

"I believe we are all related, we all came from Adam and Eve," the imam said. "We might have some disagreement, but we must find a way to sit at the table, have a discussion and respect each other."

My Faith: After my mosque was torched

CNN's Phil Gast, Carol Cratty and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.

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