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Seeking a new mosque, they find a cultural turf war

A Muslim congregation is stunned when black leaders in Pompano Beach angrily protest their building plans.

Published July 14, 2006

POMPANO BEACH — Two years ago, the congregation of a small but growing mosque in Pompano Beach raised money to expand because it needed more parking.

Mosque leaders, filled with hope, chose a patch of land in a predominantly black area.

“They picked that spot because they were sympathetic to the black struggle and believed the feelings were mutual, especially since the persecution after 9/11,” said Altaf Ali of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

They began attending zoning meetings in the summer of 2004. As expected, everything went smoothly. The new mosque would have a social hall, basketball court and playground, open to all. It would also be a storm shelter and a place to vote.

The local zoning board gave a routine go-ahead in May. Then, things got strange.

“Our dream suddenly turned into a nightmare,” said Hasan Sabri, the imam of the Islamic Center of South Florida.
Several black ministers and civic leaders, led by the Rev. O’Neal Dozier, pastor of Worldwide Christian Center near the mosque site, protested in mid June at the commission meeting.

In the 22 years of the mosque’s existence several miles away, no one in Dozier’s church had complained. But now that it was moving closer, they had plenty to say.

They didn’t want a mosque in their neighborhood, they said. They wanted affordable housing. Dozier called Muslims “dangerous,” said they were “terrorists.” Another black minister in the area warned they would “try to convert young black men.” A black commissioner said Muslim shopkeepers were “not good business partners.”

“We thought, if we talked to them, these black Christians would listen to reason,” said Sofian Zakkout, head of AMANA, the American Muslim Association of North America.

But Zakkout was wrong.

Tuesday night, Dozier and his supporters protested again at the Pompano Beach commission meeting.

A former NFL player with a law degree, Dozier arrived at City Hall at dusk, surrounded by a “church security force” to protect him from “terrorists.” Ali, of CAIR, was also there.

The two men talked outside the building, as about three dozen Dozier supporters gathered nearby with signs that said “No mosque” and “No jihad in my back yard.”

What began as civil debate quickly plunged into an anti-Islamic diatribe with Dozier and his security force shouting at Ali that “Islam is evil” and “the Koran says to cut off heads.”

That a 57-year-old black Christian minister, who gets teary-eyed when he talks about how he was “excluded as a young black man,” is dead set on excluding Muslims is surprising enough. But even more surprising is who supports him and who doesn’t.

Besides the three dozen, mostly black, protesters from his church -— which his deacon says has “over 300 parishioners” — Dozier is supported by two other black ministers from the area and about four local Jewish supporters, led by Joe Kaufman, founder of “Citizens Against Hate” and the “Republican Jewish Coalition of South Florida.”

Opposing Dozier: Willie Larson, head of Broward County’s NAACP chapter, and Andrew Louis, head of the county’s Democratic Black Caucus.

When the commission meeting started, opponents of the mosque spoke.

“People in the neighborhood feel less safe knowing Muslims are invading,” Dozier said.

“This mosque should not exist on American shores,” said Kaufman, who got a standing ovation from the predominantly black audience.

Larson, the NAACP head, went to the podium to caution against “religious intolerance.” He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

 The audience booed.

“Now, I’ve seen it all,” Louis said. “Black people booing King. Just how crazy can this get?”
Crazy enough that the president and the governor joined the opponents of Dozier, who is prominent in local and national Republican politics.

On his office wall, Dozier has framed photos with both Bushes. A profile in a community paper tells the story: “From Picking Cotton to Presidential Confidante,” it says.

But last week, the White House distanced the president from Dozier, referring reporters to a 2002 statement:

“Islam,’’ Bush had said, “as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others.”

Monday, Jeb Bush asked Dozier to resign from the judicial nominating committee, where Bush had appointed him.

“He’s entitled to his beliefs,” Bush said, “but I felt it was appropriate for him to resign from the JNC. He agreed.”
Dozier told the St. Petersburg Times: “I’m saddened but I’m not giving up the fight.”

Meanwhile, residents at the Holiday Springs condominium, about 10 minutes down the road from Pompano Beach, say that they are closely monitoring the battle, ready to jump in.

“We care about what happens and are watching,” said condo activist Lee Goldman, who characterized the population in the 35 buildings at Holiday Springs as “70 to 80 percent elderly Jewish.”

Goldman recalled that, when a different mosque was built next to their condo a few years ago, she and many of her condo neighbors protested. “We saw the mosque as a threat,” she said.

But last summer — when Hurricane Wilma hit the area, knocking out electricity and trapping many condo residents in their upper story apartments — that changed.

It was then, say condo residents, that the people from the mosque next door brought water, homemade vegetable soup, spaghetti and coffee, carting it up the stairs from door to door to stranded residents, for eight days. “Those people we hadn’t wanted in our neighborhood saved us,” said Goldman.

“They wanted nothing in return,” said resident Marlene Ashkinasi.

As a result, many of the Jewish residents at Holiday Springs Condominium and their Muslim neighbors became friends.

“Anyone who doesn’t want these good, compassionate people for neighbors is making a huge mistake and we’re prepared to say so,” said Goldman.

Sofian Zakkout, of AMANA, said the Muslims in the area are “very thankful” for the Jewish support, but hope they don’t have to rely on it.

“We pray the steam goes out of this protest,” he said.

But Dozier says it won’t.

Before he left City Hall on Tuesday, he announced his next step would be a lawsuit against the city if it doesn’t rescind approval for the mosque. Then, he walked to his PT Cruiser — which his church security force had searched for a bomb — and drove off.

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 14, 2006, 22:46:53]

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