June 18, 2010— -- A plan to build an Islamic community center in the middle-Tennessee town of Murfreesboro sparked an eruption of ugly criticism on Thursday from some residents who don't want a mosque built in their backyard.
More than 600 people turned out for a meeting of the Rutherford County Commission Thursday night, with some sharing their opposition in public comments that at times turned intolerant.
"We have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam," Allen Jackson, the pastor of World Outreach Church, said at the meeting.
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The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's plans call for a 52,000-sq. ft. facility that would include a pool, gym, and school in addition to a mosque. The center has had a facility in Murfreesboro since 1997, but says that with over 250 Islamic families in the community, it needs more space.
"It is not a huge mosque as they are saying," said Imam Ossama Bahloul. "This place is too small for us and we have to move."
Murfreesboro has a population of just over 100,000, according the the U.S. Census Bureau. It is about 30 miles southeast of Nashville.
The plan was approved by the commission last month, but that hasn't dampened the outrage from some residents who said they had no idea it was even under consideration.
"I found out when the sign came up," said Murfreesboro resident Mark Walker, whose home is near the site of the proposed mosque. "We are fighting these people, for crying out loud, we should not be promoting this."
"They seem to be against everything I believe in, and so I don't want them necessarily in my neighborhood," said local resident Stan Whiteway.
Some at the Thursday meeting wore religious or patriotic-themed clothing, and no one defended the plan in two hours of public comments, the Tennessean newspaper reported.
"They seem to be against everything that I believe in, and so I don't want them necessarily in my neighborhood spreading that type of comment," said one man at the meeting.
Tracey Steven, who also attended, said, "Our country was founded through the founding fathers -- through the true God, the Father and Jesus Christ."
Others opposed to the plan did so for more practical reasons, citing concerns about the effects on traffic and housing values. The mosque would be built in a primarily residential area.
"I was very surprised they would approve of that for any religion," said resident Jackie Archer.
Despite the outrage, county officials said Thursday that the plan will go ahead. They defended their decision by noting that the mosque plan met zoning requirements and it is illegal to reject a project for religious reasons.
Islamic Center Tries to Answer Critics' Questions
Bahloul said he and the center have done their best to dispel rumors that they are tied to terrorists and explain their motivation. On their website, they assure neighbors that they have no ties to any outside national or international organizations.
Still, Bahloul said the criticism stings.
"It hurts a little bit because it took the excitement away from us," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.