Imam Ossama Bahloul of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro helps children dig during a groundbreaking ceremony Sept. 28, 2011, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP/MARIE KEMPH)
The future site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro will be a beacon to Muslims around the world as a place of religious freedom, according to Imam Ossama Bahloul.
“I am so happy for our city,” Bahloul said, after a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday held to celebrate the construction of a new mosque and community center. “People can look to our city and see that Murfreesboro allows the practice of different religions.”
More than 200 people attended the ceremony, which was held on Veals Road. Law enforcement officials from the Murfreesboro Police Department and Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office were also present throughout the event.
A small group of protesters quietly stood in the parking lot of Grace Baptist Church, which is situated within a few hundred yards of where the future building will be located. An American flag outside of the church and two flags across the street in a residential subdivision flew at half-mast during the ceremony.
“We welcome everyone,” he said. “For those people who have expressed concern toward us in the past, I want to say clearly that we have nothing in our heart toward anyone… We extend a hand to our opposition. We will continue to have an open door policy.”
The ceremony was held only weeks after members of the Islamic Center had expressed concern to the media that they were having problems obtaining enough bids for the construction project.
“We had to do a lot to get to this point,” Bahloul said. “I am glad we have begun the first stages of construction.”
The Islamic Center hired S&A Constructors of Nashville, a general contracting and engineering firm, soon after the issue was made public.
“They need a place to worship,” said Akbar Arab, the owner of S&A Constructors.
S&A Constructors primarily focuses on commercial and government projects. It was hired by MTSU to complete the University Honors College in the early-2000s, and it is also working on a project for the Murfreesboro Housing Authority, according to the company’s website.
Phase I of construction will comprise a 12,000-square-foot, multi-purpose room, which will be used for prayer services and social events, and will be completed within the next 10 months. The project is estimated to cost $1.8 million, of which more than $900,000 has been raised, according to the Islamic Center’s website.
Phase II and III include adding an additional mosque, which will allow the men and women to remain segregated but still able to worship simultaneously. In addition, future plans include adding classrooms, an indoor pool and gymnasium.
Eventually, the Islamic Center will be a 52,000-square-foot complex, surrounded by a private cemetery, playground, and a tennis and basketball court.
“I cannot wait until construction is completed,” said Ziad Barakat, who serves as head of The Weekend School for the Islamic Center. “I am excited for the future.”
Murfreesboro resident Denise Mayo said she attended the groundbreaking ceremony to show support for the Muslim community because it has been “difficult to get to this point to break ground.”
“I have been fighting this fight, and standing up for the first time in my life,” Mayo said. “But when this started, I was very moved and felt I needed to speak up because all of the opposition to the Muslim community is wrong.”
In light of the controversy over the new Islamic Center, Saleh Sbenaty, a professor of engineering technology at MTSU, said he was “overwhelmed with emotion.”
“It has been especially exciting today because there were so many supporters here,” he said. “I am very happy.”
Mayo said she understands both cultures because she spent much of her childhood in Saudi Arabia, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relocated her father there in the late-1970s.
“I may not agree with everything they believe in, and they may not believe in everything I believe in, but I believe in the U.S. Constitution,” she said, adding she was disappointed to see that nearby flags had been lowered in protest.
“Today is a beautiful day,” she said. “It is a good day for all of us, even those of us of who are not a part of the Muslim community.”