Proposals to convert an abandoned Christian church into a mosque have met opposition from residents of a suburb outside Chicago, evoking bitter memories of two prior battles in which Muslims sought to get local community support for new mosques - one in nearby Palos Heights in 2000 and another a few miles away in Orland Park in 2004. 

Officials from the Muslim American Society (MAS), which has chapters across the United States, bought the vacant First Church of Christ, Scientists, on 12300 S 80th Avenue in Palos Park, Illinois, and said they hope to open in the summer.

Although Muslims in the southwest suburbs of Chicago have several mosques to choose from, MAS officials say that the community is expanding rapidly and another mosque is needed to serve it.

But it seems that not everyone agrees.

'American, just like them'

Anonymous flyers distributed to homes near the proposed Palos Park site warned that an Islamic centre in the area would undermine home values and create traffic congestion.

The flyers, left in mail boxes and in some cases on doorsteps, perplexed MAS officials, who said that their goal was merely to utilise a building that already has government approval to be used as a religious centre.
 
"We are surprised because we are so involved and engaged in the local community," Oussama Jammal, a spokesman for MAS and a vice president of the Bridgeview Mosque Foundation, told Al Jazeera.

"I think it is just one or two people who are distributing these flyers, trying to stir things up. We have no problem with people expressing their opinions and welcome the opinions. We want to meet with our neighbours, though, and explain who we are and what we want to do. We're American, just like them."

Jammal explained that MAS chose the building not only because it was vacant and for sale, but also because it was already "zoned" - government approved - to be used for religious purposes. Religious institutions get special government benefits.

"We have been working together for years to fight for the rights of American people. We supported the healthcare. We worked with Kid Care, which helped children get insurance in the state," added Jammal, who explained that he works with United Power for Action and Justice, a non-partisan community organisation.

"The group includes Christians, Muslims, Jews ... and many other groups who live in this region and we have been involved in many social issues to make our communities safer in fighting street gangs, to fight for better education, to obtain healthcare, and support legislation to help the disabled. This isn't about a religion. It's about being a part of the this country."

At a public meeting on February 8, local government officials denounced the flyer and described Muslims as "neighbours". But some of the local residents in attendance seemed to share the concerns expressed on it. Despite these complaints, Village of Palos Park officials have said that the municipality will not block the opening of the mosque.

Jammal said he does not believe this is an issue the local government should interfere with.

"We are part of the larger community to protect our streets, protect our youth. This is what the Muslim community is about. Unfortunately, the people don't know what we do."

Past controversies, ongoing problems

Although the flyer warned of traffic congestion as a result of the vacant church being turned into a mosque, it is located in a quite remote area [Ray Hania/Al Jazeera]

In 2000, when hundreds of local residents opposed the opening of a mosque in Palos Heights, officials blocked the sale of a church property that had been on the market for five years.

The Palos Heights mayor at the time, Dean Koldenhoven, had supported the proposal to open the mosque but was overruled by the City Council. Despite being elected with a strong majority in 1997, he was voted out of office in 2001 after the mosque controversy, drawing only 14 percent of the votes.

"I am not surprised by some opposition to the mosque but it is not anywhere near what it was 16 years ago," Koldenhoven told Al Jazeera English.

"These complaints are the same complaints we always hear. They have no basis."

Koldenhoven said he believed residents of the Chicago suburbs have become more accepting of Muslims and blamed the controversy on a handful of anti-Muslim activists.

Koldenhoven was awarded the prestigious "Profile in Courage" Award in 2002 by the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, in acknowledgement of the position he took over the mosque.

John Mahoney, the current Palos Park mayor, criticised the flyer and its accusations as "cowardly".

The Orland mosque, which was opened in 2004, received support from the Village of Orland Park, but the property has been vandalised many times, and on several occasions in 2014 and 2015 shots were fired at its golden dome as worshippers prayed inside.

Opposition to mosques has been documented across the country, in part fuelled by political attacks and comments by public figures including, most recently, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

The Council on American Islamic Relations issued a report noting that 2015 had the highest number of reported cases of vandalism against mosques and Islamic centres in the country.


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Last year, residents of Sterling Heights, near Dearborn, which has a large Arab and Muslim population, blocked the building of a mosque. Among those who opposed the mosque were many non-Arab Christians (Chaldeans) from Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq.

Chicago's southwest suburbs have two large domed mosques. The Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview was built in the 1980s in what was then an industrial zone. Today, it has become a magnet for Muslim worshippers and some homes in the area have the Muslim shahada, the declaration of faith, in cement by the entrance. 

As well as warning about traffic and reduced property prices, the flyer opposing the opening of the Palos Park mosque highlights the possibility of people from outside of the community coming in, of "large Muslim families moving into your neighbourhood - some of these ... have 20 people living in a single family home" and "more women at the Palos Heights Pool with burkas, these women go in the pool with their garments on".

The former church is, however, in a remote area near one of the region's largest hospitals and just a few blocks from a train station.

Jammal said he believed the conversion of the vacant church into a mosque will proceed without government interference and is hopeful that Muslims there will be able to work with residents to help them better understand that "we are no different than they are: just Americans who wish to practise our faith".

Source: Al Jazeera