Imam Mahmoud Harmoush stands on the site of the planned Islamic Center in… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
The most visceral opponents of the proposed mosque in Temecula warned that it could become a potential foothold for Islamic extremists, accusing local Muslim leaders of backing terrorist groups.
Supporters, including numerous residents and a contingent of pastors, rabbis and other religious leaders, called the months-long controversy a test of religious freedom and praised the peaceful virtues of Islam. Some dismissed critics as Islamophobic.
After a marathon eight-hour hearing that ended at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Temecula City Council unanimously approved the mosque, a decision officials said was based not on incendiary religious or political issues but rather on such mundane matters as traffic, parking and environmental impact.
"This is a great day for all of Temecula, really," said Imam Mahmoud Harmoush of the Islamic Center, which plans to build the 24,943-sqaure-foot mosque on a vacant lot next to a Baptist church. "Now I think we must again devote ourselves to reaching out to the community."
That may take some work.
During the public hearing, Amy Pina, 42, of Temecula said that assurances from Harmoush and other local Islamic leaders would do nothing to dispel fears of more terrorist attacks by radical Muslims.
"We are not racists and bigots because we are speaking out," Pina said as she addressed the council. "You want to come here, and not abide by our laws, then you can just turn around and find another place to live."
Dozens of residents and speakers from as far away as Los Angeles and Hesperia voiced their opposition to the center. Most of their criticism focused on potential traffic congestion that the mosque would generate on neighborhood streets, although city planners said an independent traffic study showed the center would have minimal effects.
But the debate also was fraught with religious undertones. Pastor Terrell Berry of the Orchard Christian Fellowship in Temecula said there are both Christians and Muslims who fail to live up to the tenets of their faiths, breeding confusion and fear among the disparate religions.
"It confuses us when we hear and read that many mosques are used to call its members to insurrection and jihad," Berry told the council. "We know that's not true of every mosque, but I would question this: Is it going to be true of this mosque? And if it's not going to be true of this mosque, then demonstrate that."
An equal number of speakers said the criticism was rooted in an ignorance of Islamic beliefs and emphasized that Muslims have a right to be treated the same as other religious groups.
"This is our nation as much as it is anybody else's," said Lt. j.g. Asif Balbale of Murrieta, a Navy chaplain based at Camp Pendleton who came to the U.S. from Kuwait after the Gulf war. "There is nothing wrong with building a mosque in America. It only makes our nation stronger and it sends a strong message across the world that America recognizes its diversity and appreciates it."
Early in the hearing, City Atty. Peter Thorson warned council members that they could only consider land-use issues when reviewing the project and that to base any decision on religious, political or social factors would violate freedom of religion under the 1st Amendment.
The mosque and center will feature a Mediterranean design seen in many Temecula neighborhoods, though the building will have traditional domes topped with crescent moons. The facility will be built in two stages, with the first limited to a 4,100-square-foot mosque to serve about 150 Muslim families living in Temecula, Murrieta and surrounding communities.
The Islamic Center, which has existed for years in a warehouse in one of Temecula's industrial areas, bought the property for the proposed mosque 10 years ago and has been raising money to build the facility ever since. Construction on the first phase of the project is expected to begin this year.
Harmoush said that it's become increasingly difficult for the Muslim community to build mosques around the country because of irrational fears about Islam, with the best example being the heated debate over plans for an Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center site in New York.
"This is the sentiment, unfortunately, in the last couple of years," he said. "We have more challenges to face than someone living in the Middle East or somewhere else. We have to prove ourselves. We have to be an example for our children and families and, yes, for the community at large."
During the hearing, Councilman Jeff Comerchero said officials had received hundreds of letters and e-mails about the mosque. He said he was struck by one critic who questioned how he would explain his vote to his children and grandchildren.
"The answer to that question I kind of formulated in my mind throughout the evening," he said before the vote. "What I'll tell my children and my grandchildren was that I was proud to sit up here and uphold the Constitution."