Neighbors support Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga

photo Mo Minkara speaks about the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga's new Community Center while standing in the mosque's prayer area. The center opened on July 20, and there will be a grand opening ceremony on Saturday.

IF YOU GOWhat: Grand opening of Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga, including dinner, tours, award presentations and a community dialogue.Where: Islamic Center of Chattanooga, 2533 Gunbarrel Road.When: Today at 6 p.m.RSVP:

Neighborliness may have made the difference between the calm that accompanied the building of the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga and the furor that arose over a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Tonight, officials with the Chattanooga center will welcome the public to their $2 million facility on Gunbarrel Road, while officials of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro remain embroiled in a heated court battle against neighbors who want to keep the center from opening.

Bassam Issa, a member of the board of directors of the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga, credited the absence of controversy here to several factors, including greater tolerance among residents, transparency about the project and location of the mosque.

"Chattanooga has always been more tolerant," he said.

Center leaders also were "up front from Day One" about the project, he said. They shared plans for the center with officials at nearby churches.

"We had their full support," Issa said.

Ralph Neall, a retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor and Bible professor, said he introduced Issa and other center backers to about 10 area clergypersons.

"[They] wanted to convince [us] they were good neighbors," he said. "I see no problems at all."

The location of the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga also may have made a difference, Issa said.

The Murfreesboro center is in an office park, while the Chattanooga center is on a wooded area of Gunbarrel Road within sight of two churches, Chattanooga First Seventh-day Adventist and The Crossing, a Church of God congregation.

Dale R. Tunnell, pastor of First Church of Seventh-day Adventists, the closest Christian church to the center, said his interaction with the Muslim officials has been peaceful, polite and hospitable.

"We've done several things with them," he said. "They've invited us to special events, and we've invited them to special events at our church."

Tunnell acknowledged that there is no guarantee everyone in the area will be as welcoming.

"It's possible that some are scared and fearful and don't know how to respond to people who are different than they are," he said. "We just have to follow the commands of Jesus and love people who are different from us."

The Rev. Terry Harris, senior minister of The Crossing, said through an intermediary that he and his wife met with center officials, extended a hand to them, and that his church planned to be good neighbors to the Islamic center.

Issa, who has lived in the area for 39 years, said local residents also know many of the people who attend the center.

"They're doctors, business people," he said. "They are Chattanoogans. It makes a lot of difference."

Shared vision

Issa said the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga was a vision he and three others -- Dr. Arif Shafa, Amjad Murir and Azhar Sheick - formulated in 2007 to combine a school, a multipurpose room and a mosque in an area convenient to an interstate and to Muslims across the city.

They toured churches and other centers in Tennessee, Georgia and other areas of the Southeast to get ideas, he said.

The plan they chose, a domed structure, was unique among Islamic centers but fits within traditional Islamic architecture, said member Mo Minkara.

"We didn't see anything like it," he said. "Most [with a school, multipurpose room and mosque] have separate walls."

The triangle-shaped, 2.7-acre property was purchased late in 2007, and the building was built in phases. Dome Technology, an Idaho-based company, built the base domed structure. Pointe General Contractors of Chattanooga finished the entry and the inside.

Minkara said the structure is energy efficient with all-concrete walls and is environmentally friendly with underground stormwater collection.

Annoor Academy, the private school which had been on Brainerd Road since its founding in 2009, occupies 17,200 square feet - including the center gymnasium/education hall - of the 22,500-square-foot center.

The school, which has been adding a grade a year, has 45 students from preschool through fourth grade. Three of its seven teachers are Christians.

The mosque now occupying one part of the center is the former Masjid Annour, which had been located in a house in a neighborhood off Highway 58. With bright blue carpet and an intricately blue tiled back wall, it offers separate prayer spaces for men, women with children and women without children.

The building can hold more than 1,000 people. Issa said there were "hundreds" present for the faith's recent Ramadan observances, which ran from July 19 until Aug. 18.

Daily prayer services at the center draw around 50 people, he said. Friday prayer services attract 150 to 200 people.

Future plans, according to Minkara, may include wider community educational opportunities and interfaith dialogues - similar to those at the Jewish Cultural Center - as well as basketball, soccer and volleyball.

The site also eventually will host a small soccer field and a playground, officials said. They will be able to do that, said Issa, because Pat Neuhoff of Neuhoff Taylor Architects "utilized the land so effectively."

The center, as built, is debt-free, said Issa.

"We've been very happy to accomplish this project," he said.

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