September 2nd, 2011
10:18 PM ET
By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
It has taken months, but leaders of an embattled Murfreesboro, Tennessee, mosque say that construction of a new facility could start as soon as next month.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has existed for more than a decade. As it surpassed 1,000 worshippers, its members planned to build a new 52,000-square-foot structure with a mosque, gym, playground and cemetery.
Backlash followed, including lawsuits and an August 2010 fire that destroyed construction equipment and damaged vehicles at the construction site for the mosque. Police said it was arson.
A sign announcing the mosque was spray-painted with the words "Not Welcome."
The Murfreesboro Muslim community's story was featured in the April documentary, "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door," which will air again at 8 p.m. ET Sunday on CNN.
For months, mosque leaders searched for contractors willing and able to do the job. Because of the opposition and threats the project has provoked, the construction job has gotten more complicated. The work now requires more layers of security, including cameras.
Some contractors weren't willing to take the job. Mosque leaders said contractors told them it had become too much of a hot-button issue and presented too much of a risk to their business and equipment. Several contractors began the bidding process but never finished.
Mosque officials said a contractor told them that he needed the work but that the leaders of his own church were against the new Islamic center.
"I had a contractor tell me, 'I don't want to get on bad terms with my preacher,'" said Essam Fathy, a member of the Islamic Center's board of directors. "I told him, 'You need to be able to do what you believe inside, and tell your preacher what the problem is, and discuss it with him.'
"It hasn't gone as smooth as I thought it would go."
But mosque leaders said several contractors' bids are coming in, and they hope construction will begin next month, before the often rainy fall begins.
Leaders said they never anticipated a negative response to the construction of a new facility, or the national attention it would draw. The debate heats up with every legal motion or political statement, like when Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said in August that communities should be able to prevent mosques from being built. Cain later apologized.
"We are exhausted. So much media attention, so many calls, so many e-mails," said Imam Ossama Bahloul. "We were all shocked that people were so aggressive to us. We were not anticipating any opposition. I do believe it's a small group of people with a very volatile voice."
This week, a Rutherford County judge affirmed his May decision that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has a right to build a larger facility.
In the opinion, Chancellor Robert Corlew said organizations must be treated equally under current land-use ordinances, but added that some of the county's land use laws are "in dire need of revision."
Corlew also wrote that the plaintiffs suing Rutherford County's planning commission can challenge whether the mosque's approval violated open meeting laws.
Joe Brandon Jr., an attorney for the plaintiffs, said they'll be filing paperwork early next week that will lead to a trial date.
"This fight is far from over," Brandon said. "We are confident that victory is certain."
But Fathy, who sits on the Islamic Center's planning commission, said the judge's affirmation was cause to celebrate. Mosque members learned of it during a feast to break the Ramadan fast.
Like most other years, they'd rented a large facility and invited Muslims and non-Muslims, but this was the biggest crowd it had ever drawn.
"Next year, we'll have this event," Fathy said he told the crowd, "and we'll have this in the new Islamic Center."
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