August 10th, 2012
10:56 AM ET
Editor's 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 on CNN at 8 ET/PT Sunday night.
By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN)–Saleh Sbenaty was asked more than once Friday how he slept the night before. He didn't.
How could he when a longtime dream was about to be fulfilled?
Friday afternoon, Sbenaty and other Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, entered a brand new mosque, Tennessee, and fell in prayer to their knees.
They'd waited more than two years for the opening of their new Islamic center, delayed by legal wrangling and anti-Muslim sentiment that surfaced through protests, arson and vandalism.
Friday, Sbenaty, a mosque board member, struggled for words that adequately captured his excitement. So did his daughter, Lema.
"Oh my goodness it's gorgeous. It's gorgeous," she said entering the prayer room for the first time Friday.
It was sanctuary.
She bowed her head to the red carpet in prayer pose, tears filling her eyes, her voice quivering.
"We've come such a long way from where we were to where we are now," she told CNN. "And I mean this is the fruits of our labor. It's emotional because we never thought we'd be here this fast. It's absolutely overwhelming."
Others streamed in at 1 p.m. for afternoon prayers.
A sign says the maximum capacity is 636. Saleh Sbenaty expected between 400 and 500 on the first day.
No more were they crammed into one room of a small building. They took off their shoes and placed them in rows and rows of racks and entered the prayer room. Among them were non-Muslim visitors who came to show their support. One wore a T-shirt sporting a slogan saying as much.
Saleh Sbenaty sat among the men on the front row as the imam began the prayers by recalling all that has happened. He reminded his congregation that no challenge in life was too great to overcome.
Not once in the long and stressful process to build the center had Sbenaty given up hope, though sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel seemed woefully dim.
"We never had doubt," he said. "We are citizens of this great country. We are believers of the constitution."
The 12,000 square-foot center next to Grace Baptist Church on Veals Road is still not fully furnished and is lacking an audio system. But it was important, Sbenaty said, to have Friday prayers inside the new facility during Ramadan, Islam's holy month, which ends August 19.
The center plans a grand opening in a few weeks when everything is in place.
Murfreesboro's Muslims had outgrown their older and much smaller space tucked away from a road in the southwest part of town. In 2009, they purchased 15 acres of land for a new Islamic center a few miles to the east. Construction began the following year.
The plans were to eventually grow the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to 52,000 square feet and will include the mosque, school, gym and a swimming pool.
But from the start, the new center divided this small city 35 miles southeast of Nashville that has 104,000 people, more than 140 churches and one mosque.
Opponents of the mosque protested, citing zoning concerns and worries about radical Islam.
Proponents cried religious intolerance.
Early on, Kevin Fisher, who led the protests, said opponents are going to contest "every brick that's laid."
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey didn't mince words, either.
"You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it," he said during his failed run for governor.
A fire at the construction site destroyed an earth mover and damaged three other vehicles. Authorities determined it was arson.
A sign announcing the new center was vandalized. The message said: "Not welcome."
Some residents filed a lawsuit to stop the new mosque. Later, a local judge stopped the permitting process. Then, a federal judge stepped in and ordered the construction to continue.
The Muslim community in Murfreesboro was in shock. Some had lived in the area for 30 years. Their kids were born there, raised there.
"The last two years were exceptional, as the sentiment of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim in this country was growing," Sbenaty said.
But he said that sentiment was not shared by the majority of people in Murfreesboro.
The excitement about Friday's prayers was palpable in the Muslim community - after being under the microscope for so long.
And there was a collective sigh of relief, although Sbenaty said security concerns remain high after everything they have been through and after a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was burned to the ground earlier this week.
"Yes, we are very concerned because we have been also the subject of vandalism, arson, bomb threats, intimidation, bullying," Sbenaty said. "You call it. Every single act of intimidation, you know, was actually inflicted upon us."
Lema Sbenaty said she had heard about plans to build a mosque since she was a little girl. She hoped that now that it was finally open, the house of worship could serve as a place to heal.
"Certainly there are lot of issues to be dealt with in our community," she said. "Perhaps we can start to build bridges."
And yet another member of the Muslim community, Essam Fathy, said he was proud to be living in America.
"Of course, you question your beliefs, you question your faith when the opposition becomes so vocal," he said. "No matter what happened, God had his way."
He went on to talk about the power of the U.S. constitution. It was the freedoms afforded to people in this country that allowed the mosque to rise.
It was not just words, he said. It was real. As was the domed building where he said his prayers Friday.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.