The scene at the St. Anthony City Council vote in June.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

Rebuffed Muslims invite St. Anthony residents to meal

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH
  • Star Tribune
  • August 7, 2012 - 11:18 PM

Muslim supporters of a proposed Islamic center rejected by St. Anthony elected leaders plan to host a Ramadan meal Thursday in an effort to share their faith with non-Muslims, organizers say.

Dozens of people are expected to participate in the traditional meal known as an iftar, which ends the daily fast, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the St. Anthony Community Center at city hall.

Advocates for the Abu Huraira Islamic Center decided to hold the iftar to "develop understanding" after anti-Islamic comments were made by St. Anthony residents at a City Council meeting where members voted down the proposed center. The center had been planned for the basement of the former Medtronic headquarters.

"This is great opportunity for us to ... get to know our neighbors," said Sadik Warfa, a spokesman for the Islamic center. "We want to reach out to our neighbors of all faiths in the St. Anthony Village area. It's really meant to create a positive atmosphere and friendships with our neighbors."

The Minnesota Council of Churches is helping sponsor the iftar, which recently was added to the list of public iftars being held at metro-area mosques during Ramadan. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk during the month-long sacred period, which this year began July 19. Iftar meals often are open to non-Muslims.

Gail Anderson, a director at the Council of Churches who helped organize the iftars, said the St. Anthony iftar could bring "the fear level way down" and help Muslims "build relationships in the community."

"It's just a lot people really wanting to know each other better and understand each other better," Anderson said.

Incompatible with zoning?

The St. Anthony City Council rejected plans for the Islamic center in June, arguing it was incompatible with the building's light-industrial zoning. At the meeting, some St. Anthony opponents of the plan said the Muslim center was not welcome and made disparaging remarks about the Muslim faith. At least one resident said Islam is "evil" and embraces violence.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate allegations of anti-Muslim bias in the council's action. The U.S. attorney's office has visited the proposed Islamic center site and is interviewing people about the council action, said spokeswoman Jeanne Cooney. She said her office hopes to "resolve this matter to the satisfaction of all parties," but could pursue litigation if it finds that the council action violated federal law.

Nationally, the Justice Department has launched investigations into 28 similar cases, according to the American-Islamic Council. In the case of St. Anthony, it asked federal authorities to determine whether the action violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which "protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land-use regulations."

City leaders say they did not discriminate against the Muslim group in denying the Islamic center.

Warfa, the spokesman for the Islamic center, said he hopes City Council members and other St. Anthony government leaders will attend the iftar. Since the council's decision, St. Anthony churches have held an interfaith gathering that encouraged Christians and Muslims to learn about the two faiths. St. Anthony City Manager Mark Casey said Tuesday he was not aware of the iftar and did not know whether city officials would attend.

Lori Saroya, executive director of CAIR-Minnesota, said the iftar is a "great idea" that can lead to better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.

"It was so horrible to see all those comments [at city council meeting]," Saroya said. "I think it's a positive thing to have this gathering ... sharing their faith and culture with others."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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