ST. CLOUD, MINN. – The cars pull up a good hour before Friday prayer, quickly filling the side streets and parking lots a few blocks from City Hall.
By 1 o’clock, more than 200 men, some wearing long, flowing robes and prayer caps, others in jeans and short-sleeved shirts, have climbed the concrete steps to the local Islamic Center for an hour of reflection and worship.
“It’s full,” said Haji Yussef, a Friday regular who runs a local advertising business. “We don’t have any space for women. We need a bigger space where women can pray and where men can pray. We need more space.”
But finding it here hasn’t been easy.
After two years of planning, hours of public hearings and scores of e-mails for and against, the Islamic Center of St. Cloud abruptly pulled the plug last week on a bid to build a second and larger mosque on 9.5 acres of vacant land on the south side of town.
Concerns about traffic, parking and the size of the development fueled strong opposition to the project, but some in the local Muslim community quietly wonder if there wasn’t more to it than that.
Dozens of nasty e-mails sent to city officials and posted on the city’s website as part of the public record in recent weeks exposed an underlying friction that some say sullied the conversation and revealed an unwillingness by some in this central Minnesota city of 66,000 residents to embrace their Muslim neighbors.
“Basically, we have some elements in our community that are very hateful and that are very biased,” Yussef said. “It’s not a lot of people. It’s not everybody. But we hear them.”
Several neighborhood residents and council members say derogatory e-mails and comments about race and religion did little to influence the debate.
Rather, opposition to the project — which included a mosque and school — stemmed more from community concerns about the scope of the development and the potential congestion in a relatively quiet residential neighborhood where homes are modest and streets are narrow.
Plans called for about 600 worshipers to use the buildings, to be built in stages over a period of years.
“It’s easy to say it’s a ‘not in my back yard’ thing,” said Dave Masters, the council member who represents the area. “But they need a large enough site to accommodate what they want to do.”
Masters said that other local churches that have recently built in the area have generally picked larger parcels that more easily accommodate parking needs and future growth.
“I don’t get a hint or whisper of any council member not wanting them to have a mosque in town,” said John Libert, the council’s vice president. “That’s not the issue. It’s location, location, location, and the traffic and the neighborhood having concerns with that.”
The Islamic Center’s push for another mosque is motivated by the rapid growth of the area’s East African community, many of whom are Muslim, over the past 15 years. City officials have no credible statistics on how large the population might be, but educated guesses put the number between 4,000 and 10,000, Yussef said.
In 2011 the center bought the vacant property on the city’s south side from the local school district.
The original plan called for erecting three buildings where local Muslims could not only pray, but where “kids can have computers, kids can have a basketball court and have a place to hang out and stay away from trouble,” Yussef said.
But center officials scaled back plans after residents expressed concerns.
“They are trying to put a basketball in a pool cue hole,” said Scott Condit, who lives across the street from the potential development site.
“If they were putting up a Catholic church there, I’d be against it,” said Shane Olson, a neighborhood resident of nine years who said local streets are already overrun by local college students who drive to a nearby park to play hockey or soccer.
“Our biggest concern is that people go too fast,” he said.
Some get ugly
The city’s public record on the issue shows that over months of debate, hundreds of residents signed petitions supporting the project. But hundreds more signed petitions or sent e-mails opposing it.
Some got ugly.
“Don’t want terrorists living next to friends,” one e-mailer wrote to the city.
“Islam is a direct threat to our national security. They MUST be stopped,” wrote another.
One e-mailer said that “if the Somalis can’t accept our clothing style, our laws, our religion, then get out of Dodge.”
Abdulrashid Salad, president of the Islamic Center, won’t address the hostility but said that over the many weeks of debate he noticed that some citizens spoke publicly to the council “in one way, but when they were talking to other people, they talk differently.
“As a person of faith, I feel sorry for people like that,” he said.
‘Wasn’t going in our favor’
Some 500 people squeezed into council chambers last week to speak on the center’s proposed development, which required a zoning change from the council. But before the council could vote, Salad abruptly pulled the proposal off the table.
Despite a “favorable” city staff report and recommendation, he said, “we realized it wasn’t going in our favor.”
“We are not developers who will dig and build,” said Mohayadin Mohamed, an Islamic Center board member, explaining that it is important for the center to compromise and address community concerns. “We are here to stay with this neighborhood for years to come. So we want to have a really good relationship.”
What’s next is uncertain.
“Everybody agrees there needs to be another mosque,” said David Meyers, an attorney representing the Islamic Center. “The question is, ‘Is this the best location?’ ”
Libert said his hope is that the Islamic Center will find a bigger site with better access.
Salad, meanwhile, said the Islamic Center may revise its plans for the same site.
“I don’t want to give out design concepts because I want to talk to the rest of the board members,” he said. “Now we have to go back and see how the engineers and architects think and come up with a design that eliminates concerns.”