AUGUSTA – A proposal to build the first mosque in the city was approved unanimously by the Planning Board Tuesday.
It was also strongly welcomed by representatives of the area’s established religions, including Catholics, Jews and Unitarians.
The Islamic Society of Greater Augusta, a nonprofit group founded in 2009, won approval to build a 1,230 square-foot mosque, with seating for 70 people and parking for 21 cars, on St. Andrews Street a short dead-end street off South Belfast Avenue, on the city’s east side.
More than 60 people packed into council chambers Tuesday for a Planning Board public hearing on the proposal.
No one spoke in opposition to the proposal and the new place of worship won strong support from the leaders of other religions.
David Offer, president of Temple Beth El in Augusta, said it’s no secret Muslims and Jews are deeply divided in the Middle East on multiple issues. But he said that has nothing to do with the religious freedom of everybody to worship as they choose in Augusta.
“I’m aware there are unreasonable fears that all Muslims are linked to terrorism,” Offer said. “It’s time to get past those fears. The Jewish community faced prejudices when we first moved here. No one wanted to sell us land.”
Offer said it is important to embrace the Islamic community.
The street is already home to one vacant place of worship, the former St. Andrew Catholic Church, which closed in 2011.
The Rev. Frank Morin, administrator of St. Michael’s Catholic Parish, said he hopes “our Muslim brothers and sisters” will be celebrated in the community and accepted by city government.
And the Rev. Carie Johnson, of the Universalist Unitarian church in Augusta, who said she was also speaking for the Winthrop Area Ministers’ Association, said celebrating religious diversity fosters “connection in our common humanity and invites us to stand on the side of love by reaching beyond ourselves.”
Jeremy Wadleigh, treasurer of the Islamic Society of Greater Augusta, said a few of the society’s members are converts to the religion, others are immigrants, and most are citizens of the United States and intend to make Augusta their longtime home.
He said the group previously met for prayers at various places, including apartments of members, the chapel at VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus, and, most recently, in office space they rented on Spruce Street.
They wanted a centrally located spot, so members who work during the day could make it to, for example, Friday prayers which are at 1 in the afternoon, and still make it back to work on time. Wadleigh said when they met for prayers at an apartment, their comings and goings at night bothered a neighbor, so they moved to the office until finally seeking to build the proposed mosque.
Leaders have wanted to build a mosque in Augusta since it was founded four years ago, according to member Ather Mohammed, 37, a pharmacist in Augusta.
The parcel is in the city’s low density residential district, where religious activities and associated uses are an allowed use under the city’s land use rules.
“It is a permitted use, so all we’re really concerned about is the building,” said Linda Conti, a board member.
Wadleigh said the active Islamic community in the area includes about 15 families. He said most have lived in the area five to 10 years.
Nazeer Khaja, president of the society, said in paperwork filed with the city as part of its application for a minor site review construction could be completed within six months of the city’s approval. He said the society has been an organized community for more than 10 years.
Khaja said the group has been fundraising both locally and throughout the state for the project, and expects to have enough funds raised by the end of the year.
The society bought the seven-acre vacant lot last year for $45,000, from Amanda M. Zayac, of Readfield, according to the city’s assessing database.
Keith Edwards – 621-5647 [email protected]