An emotional standoff during a religious service last week has spotlighted tensions over plans to build a new mosque in Temecula.
A 90-minute rally by mosque opponents and an even larger show of support from religious rights advocates unfolded last Friday under the watchful eyes of about a half dozen Temecula police officers.
The standoff – which drew nationwide attention and widespread media coverage – came as Temecula officials added a new layer of study for what has become the most controversial house of worship to be planned in the city in about a decade.
The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley wants to build a 24,943-square-foot mosque on 4.3 acres along Nicolas Road in Temecula’s northeast corner. If it is built, the mosque would be located near two existing Christian churches.
About 25 people, many of them carrying signs and taking turns speaking into a bullhorn, participated in the protest. The speakers, including one man who described himself as a prospective Temecula City Council candidate, were critical of Islam and the land use proposal that is expected to be reviewed by planning commissioners in November.
The protesters anchored a corner of Rio Nedo across from an industrial building that has served as a regional Islamic center for many years. Zorinda Bennett of Temecula brought her dog – Meadow – in part because rally organizers had stated that Muslims dislike dogs.
“We need to take a stand and have our voices heard,” said Bennett, who carried a sign fashioned in the shape of a cross. “This is America. This is a Christian country, not a Muslim country.”
Many of the mosque foes equated Muslims to “terrorists” and blamed them for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Americans elsewhere. Ernie White, who described himself as a possible candidate for Temecula City Council in November, was among the most outspoken critics of the mosque plan.
Much of the backlash stemming from the rally centered on the request for mosque opponents to bring dogs. Other scrutiny came from mosque supporters and religious rights groups who sought to identify the rally organizers.
The anti-mosque rally was largely publicized via a July 18 electronic newsletter that was distributed to newspapers and local conservative political activists. The rally notice was listed among opinion pieces and upcoming activities planned by Republican and Tea Party activists.
As news of the protest spread, leaders of local Republican and Tea Party groups issued separate news releases that denied any involvement.
Ted Wegener – writing on behalf of Tea Party activists in Menifee, Murrieta and Hemet – said he and other leaders “wish to emphatically state” that they were not involved.
Similarly, leaders of the Murrieta Temecula Republican Assembly said their group “has not or will not take a position for or against the construction of the Temecula mosque.”
The protesters were outnumbered by mosque supporters – some from as far away as Los Angeles and San Diego – who carried signs and gave speeches of their own. Many of them sat under a shade awning in front of the Islamic Center and wore lapel tags with the word “Friend” printed upon them.
“We are here to enrich America,” Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, government relations director for the national Muslim Public Affairs Council, said in a brief speech. “We are here to be part of America. We are here to serve America. That is why we left the Middle East.”
Several of the pro-mosque participants said they represented Christian congregations or other faiths.
“Judaism teaches tolerance and respect,” said Jeff Schwimmer, who wore a yarmulke during the event and said he had traveled from San Diego to participate. “I think it is important that we stand up for these issues.”
At times, representatives of the two groups ventured across the street to speak to or shout at the other. After letting these confrontations unfold for a moment or two, police officers shooed the event participants to their respective sides.
Islamic Center leaders had “requested a police presence” to ensure the safety of the group’s members, according to a press release. “We have advised our community members not to respond to those who seek to disrupt us during our time of prayer.”
An afternoon prayer service inside the existing mosque attracted about 130 men, women and children.
Kathleen Hamilton, a De Luz resident who is active in regional environmental issues, initially joined mosque supporters outside the Islamic center. Hamilton, who said she is a Catholic, subsequently slipped inside to join the worship service.
“I think it’s very important to dissipate the fear that so many people have,” she said. “Fear tends to build hate, and that’s a very destructive emotion.”
After the service, Basemeh Rihan of Murrieta thanked Hamilton for venturing inside. Richan, who said she teaches communications at Mt. San Jacinto College, said she had prayed that people of different faiths would help open a dialog over the proposed mosque and other related issues.
She said the center – which currently serves more than 150 families from the Temecula and Murrieta areas – needs room to grow and flourish. She said much of the misinformation that surrounds Islam stems from cultural, not religious, beliefs.
“It’s a fear of the unknown,” Rihan said to Hamilton. “If they (mosque protesters) would talk we will talk back to them. The shouting doesn’t get us anywhere.”