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Heated debate over the nature of Islam is overshadowing plans to build a mosque in northeast Temecula.

Critics, including the pastor of a church next to the mosque site, say the worship center is a bad fit for the area. They're also concerned with what they describe as Islam's extreme agenda of expansion.

The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley's imam, or prayer leader, said his group is peaceful and only seeks more room to serve its members. And the civil rights manager for a Muslim-American advocacy group said the mosque's critics are ignorant, if not bigoted.

The proposal to build a 24,950-square-foot mosque on a 4-acre site on Nicolas Road is tentatively scheduled to come before the Temecula Planning Commission on Aug. 18.

Temecula is home to a diverse array of Christian churches, from upstart evangelicals to traditional congregations. The city of 105,000 also has a conservative reputation; a majority of Temecula voters in 2008 sought to ban same-sex marriage and a portrait of a nude woman was removed from a city-owned building earlier this year.

Mosque construction plans have encountered resistance nationwide in recent months. Proposals to build mosques in Tennessee, Wisconsin and near ground zero in New York have all been met with protests.

"When churches decide to expand or build facilities, what's the purpose behind that?" asked Affad Sheikh, civil rights manager with the Greater Los Angeles Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Why is this question being asked of the Muslim community?"

'A growing center'
Located about two miles east of Chaparral High School in a relatively rural part of Temecula, the proposed Mediterranean-style mosque would be built in two phases.

A computer simulation on the center's website shows a building with a central dome and two smaller spires, each with a crescent moon on top.

Imam Mahmoud Harmoush said the center has outgrown its rented 7,000-square-foot space on Rio Nedo. The nearest mosques are in Riverside, Corona and San Diego, he said.

According to its website, the center started in February 1998 with five families praying in each other's houses during Ramadan, a holy month in the Muslim calendar.

Today the center serves between 150 and 200 families, Harmoush said.

Patrick Richardson, Temecula's director of planning and redevelopment, said politics and religion are not factors in the city's review of the mosque. Staff is looking at the mosque's effect on air quality, noise and traffic, Richardson said, adding that the environmental review is ongoing.

If the mosque is approved, construction of the first phase is expected to cost $800,000 to $1 million, Harmoush said. Besides providing more space, Harmoush said, he hopes the center helps dispel misconceptions about Muslims.

"(Muslims) are people you see every day in normal life situations," he said, adding that the center has not had any major problems in Temecula.

The mosque would be built next to Calvary Baptist Church. Pastor Bill Rench worries the mosque is too large for the site.

But he said he's particularly concerned about what he described as "the whole issue of Islam and what it stands for."

"It's certainly a religion that is not only different but contrary to Christianity," he said.

"Where it's dominant, religious freedom goes out the window ... the message of Islam is the spread of Islam by whatever means necessary."

Putting the mosque next to Calvary is "almost like trying to put oil and water together," Rench added.

Grace Presbyterian Church is next to Calvary. Scott Dienhart, chairman of the finance committee at Grace, said the church's board of elders has not met to discuss a position on the mosque.

Bob Kowell, president of the Murrieta Temecula Republican Assembly, said while he doesn't have a problem with the mosque, "We're for the free expression of all religions that don't call for my death or your death or the suppression of women."

The mosque needs to reject Osama bin Laden and holy war against non-Muslims, Kowell said.

"If they do not reject these things, then they're a part of it," he said.

An online group called Concerned Community Citizens is circulating a petition about the mosque. The petition states the mosque will lead to traffic congestion, noise pollution and other environmental problems.

Sheikh said Muslims' roots in America date to before the country's founding.

He said critics' comments speak to their ignorance, if not their bigotry.

"You have a community in your backyard and you don't even know this community," he said. "And you're making these statements -- it speaks to how much ignorance there is."

Merle Lehman, a retired United Methodist minister from Murrieta, said he knows Harmoush through their interactions in the Interfaith Council of Murrieta & Temecula Valley, a group dedicated to religious harmony. The council voted last week to support the mosque, he said.

"(Harmoush) brought (the mosque) before us from time to time and we support them," Lehman said. "There are oodles and oodles of American Muslims and almost all of them are not extremists. They are not terrorists. They are law-abiding citizens just like the rest of us."


Jeff Horseman can be reached at

The Press-Enterprise



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