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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

After years of struggle, Bayonne's Muslims will get a mosque

Across New Jersey, opposition had stymied wish for place of worship

Yaser Eisa, among residents of Bayonne, New Jersey, who have spent years in planning battles for a mosque.( Rob Crilly / The National)
Yaser Eisa, among residents of Bayonne, New Jersey, who have spent years in planning battles for a mosque.( Rob Crilly / The National)

Bayonne's Muslims have bounced from one location to another for more than a decade, first renting a basement from a church school for prayer services, then sharing with another mosque and even taking over an empty stationery shop while the landlord searched for another business to take the premises.

"We want to have a home," said Yaser Eisa, as he left Friday prayers, held for the time being in a room above a row of shops.

That home is finally coming in the form of a disused warehouse. It will be converted into a mosque with classrooms, offices and a gym.

But it has taken a long, bitter struggle of tumultuous public meetings, Islamophobic graffiti and the objections of local officials to get what the community wanted.

Victory arrived this month when planners backed the proposals – but only after Muslims launched a legal challenge, forcing the city into a $400,000 settlement amid a federal investigation into the local zoning board's conduct.

It is an increasingly familiar story across America, where young, growing Muslim populations are seeking to build their own religious centres. And where federal authorities are being asked to step in to protect their freedom of worship enshrined in the US constitution.

"We did everything by the book but we knew there would be resistance because it's a mosque," said Mr Eisa, a mechanical engineer.

As ever this past Friday, the cramped venue meant worshippers could not stick around to catch up with each other's news. As prayers ended they streamed down the stairs into the street so that a second congregation could take their places.

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Instead, Mr Eisa headed across the street to a diner for coffee and eggs. There he described the fraught battle for a mosque in Bayonne, a blue-collar suburb across the water from New York City.

It had been a goal for Bayonne Muslims, as they style themselves, for as long as he could remember. Every potential plot they found was either too expensive or not for sale.

That changed in September 2015 when they bought a disused factory site for $1 million, with plans to spend another $600,000 on facilities to accommodate 1,000 worshippers.

It quickly generated opposition. Protesters congregated outside Bayonne's city hall before the zoning committee could make a decision on whether to let it go ahead.

Opponents argued that the neighbourhood could not cope with more traffic and warned of parking chaos. But religious arguments also surfaced.

A local politician cited the Pulse nightclub shooting which occurred in Florida in 2016 - when 29 people were shot dead by a gunman - to argue against the plans.

"In light of the Orlando terrorist attack recently committed in the name of Islam, a mosque in Bayonne would be unsafe and unwise," Michael Alonso wrote in a statement that was used in local news reports.

Local opposition was followed by a 20-year-old man being arrested when Islamophobic graffiti appeared on the premises of St Henry's Church school, where the Muslim congregation used to meet.

With tensions rising, the proposal came to a vote before the zoning board in March 2017. It turned into a raucous, six-hour public hearing.

One resident, Ledia Elraheb, read passages from the Koran that she claimed justified violence against non-believers.

"How many children have died under this so-called religion? Religion doesn't do that," she shouted before being stopped in what became a very difficult moment for the mosque's supporters.

Mr Eisa said: "There was actually a point where I saw a friend who I hadn't seen in a long time and he said, 'Hey what's up,' and smiled. Then a couple of minutes later he goes up and talks bad about us. It was an awful night. And then we got rejected."

Two months later, the mosque's leaders launched a federal lawsuit arguing that the zoning board had gone beyond its mandate – and was not allowed to consider parking or traffic - violating federal law by denying their application.

They cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalised Persons Act which was introduced in 2000 to ensure zoning issues were not being abused to hide discrimination.

In a recent report, the Department of Justice found that although Muslims make up only one percent of the US population, they are responsible for a disproportionate number of investigations under the act's powers.

In the decade after it was introduced, the Department of Justice launched seven investigations into zoning disputes relating to mosques or Islamic schools – making up 14 percent of the total. But that number rose to 17 in the years from 2010 to 2016 – representing 38 percent overall.

Bayonne's battle turned out to be short compared with other mosques in New Jersey. Last year Bernards Township agreed to pay $3.25 million to settle lawsuits relating to blocked plans for a mosque. That case was settled after six years and at least 39 public hearings.

In 2014, the town of Bridgewater settled a similar claim for $7.75 million.

Bayonne Muslims' got their breakthrough in January, when the city opted to settle rather than going to court. It agreed to pay $400,000 and allow the proposal to go forward with a full public hearing – which happened earlier this month.

Waheed Akbar, a member of their board, said the decision marks the end of a long journey.

"I felt thankful that our congregation is going to have a place of their own in the town they have lived and called home for decades," he said, adding that Bayonne’s Muslims hope to be in their new mosque by November.