02/20/07 — Mosque request sparks debate

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Mosque request sparks debate

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 20, 2007 1:49 PM

Dr. Waheed Akhtar has to go to Raleigh to pray.

There just are not any suitable places in Goldsboro for a Muslim to worship in, he said.

So he bought some land at the corner of Wayne Memorial Drive and Best Avenue and, along with several who share his faith, asked Goldsboro City Council members to allow the construction of a mosque there.

But some residents of the surrounding neighborhood said Monday they are strongly opposed to the rezoning request.

The public hearing on the issue lasted more than an hour as several supporters and opponents took the floor, speaking at length about the pros and cons of a shift from residential to office and institutional.

Joyce Waters lives "right next to" the proposed mosque site and said potential traffic issues are a major concern for neighbors along Best Avenue.

"We are trying to preserve this residential area," she said. "I do not want to see this happen."

Akhtar and his supporters, though, dismissed the claim that their worship center would create an inconvenience for the neighbors -- Wayne Memorial Drive will always create traffic woes, he said.

"We're proposing to build a small place," Akhtar said. "(Muslims) are a smaller community in Goldsboro."

Plans for the mosque call for a 2,000-plus square-foot facility with room for roughly 20 parking spaces -- more than enough to fulfill the needs of the 20 to 25 Muslims who would utilize the building, he added.

With "very little increase" in the Muslim community expected over the next few years, Akhtar said he finds it hard to believe that the city's "small Muslim community" would disrupt the neighborhood.

"Most of the time, there are very few people who come to the mosque," he said.

The hours of operation would be Friday between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. During those times, there would be less traffic on the block than a weekend party or barbecue would create, he added.

Pauline Dillard still wasn't convinced.

"I'm really, really opposed," she said.

Ernest Lewis agreed. And while his argument began by dismissing the notion that a 2,000 square-foot facility would fit on the proposed site, his tone changed toward the end of his statement to the council.

"I am just opposed to this mosque," he said. "There's plenty of land in Wayne County. They can go somewhere else."

Right about that time, Goldsboro High School student Tywanna Webb stopped watching the council meeting on television. She was growing uncomfortable with the direction that the conversation was headed, she said.

So she got a ride to City Hall in time to address the council on the issue.

"I don't understand what the big deal is," she said, adding there are churches in neighborhoods all over the city. "These people have to travel all the way to Raleigh. Our community is diverse. These people have the right to worship comfortably."

But District 4 Councilman the Rev. Charles Williams rejected claims that there is not a place for Muslims to worship in the city.

The Wayne County Islamic Society on Slocumb Street can provide the same services as the proposed mosque, he said.

But supporters of the request argued that the center is not suitable -- or safe -- for their congregation.

A valid protest petition was filed with the city's planning department before the meeting by neighbors near the intersection of Best Avenue and Wayne Memorial Drive. As a result, approval of the request will be contingent upon a vote in which six council members give Akhtar the OK.

The Planning Commission will have a recommendation for the council at its next meeting. At that time, it is likely that a vote will take place.

Lama Moakeh is hoping the request is approved and that Goldsboro and Wayne residents will accept Muslims as an important part of the community.

"We're not strangers," she said. "We're part of you. There's plenty of room for all of us."