PORTLAND – Islamic families who were prevented last year from worshipping at their mosque due to city zoning regulations won’t ever have to worry about losing that right again.

The Portland Planning Board on Tuesday night granted the Portland Masjid and Islamic Center, 978 Washington Ave., approval for a conditional use permit to use the former television repair shop as their place of worship.

The mosque was forced to close last year for about five months because the lot, which is undersized, was not large enough to satisfy city zoning requirements.

Zachary Heiden, an attorney with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, subsequently filed a lawsuit in federal court.

A consent agreement allowed the mosque’s members to resume worship while the city revised its zoning regulations.

Under the agreement, the mosque, whose members are mostly Afghan refugees, did have to pay for the removal of a parking lot that had been illegally paved.

City zoning now allows places of assembly in the Residential-5 zone, but it also requires a conditional use permit.

“This may be a rather routine act for you,” Heiden told Planning Board members. “But for this community tonight is a very significant, momentous occasion. Portland by its actions here tonight has a chance to do what it does best to set an example for the state and for the rest of the country.”

Board members voted 4-0 to approve the conditional use permit for the mosque. “We welcome all of you to the city. You have met the standards,” said Planning Board member David Silk.

Heiden said the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court will most likely be withdrawn provided his clients are compensated financially.

About 15 families worship at the mosque. The majority of the congregation attends noon services on Fridays.

Saif Amini, who was trained as a physician in Afghanistan, serves as president of Portland Masjib and Islamic Center.

“It is wonderful. It is big,” said Amini, who lives in Portland. “When it closed, it was traumatic for our community.”

He immigrated to the United States in 1988. His three grown children went on to college.

Mohammed Abid of Portland said the hardest part was not being able to teach the mosque’s children when it closed.

“It is very good. Perfect. We like it,” Abid said of the Planning Board’s decision.

Heiden created a blog about the situation in Portland on the Maine Civil Liberties Union website.

In his blog, Heiden said the campaign to make Muslims feel unwelcome in other parts of the country has been overt and nefarious. In New York City, efforts to build a mosque in lower Manhattan have created controversy.

“It has been opposed by people who seem to believe that all of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims helped plan and carry out the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001,” Heiden wrote. He said in Murfreesboro, Tenn. candidates running for governor have competed to outdo one another in opposition to a Muslim community center. One candidate questioned whether Islam is truly a religion.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]