LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
There are several other stories we're following this morning, besides this big political one. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, after road blocks, law suits and threats, a mosque opened its doors for the first time yesterday. Now members of the Muslim congregation are trying to cut tension and bridge a divide that was exposed during the debate. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN was there for the first service.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Part of the Muslim ritual before gathering for prayer involves a cleansing that goes beyond ceremony. It starts with the hands, feet, face and even the inside of the nose. Imam Ossama Bahloul is attempting to wash away some of the hard feelings that remain here in middle Tennessee. The congregation was trying to build a new place of worship southeast of Nashville just as the national debate raged over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque in New York City. As a result, protest marches were held, many led by Christians saying Islam is a false religion, and that the mosque would be a breeding ground for terrorism. Imam Bahloul is now on a campaign to create unity, as he spoke to his members.
IMAM OSSAMA BAHLOUL: While we sometimes feel that we practice different beliefs, well, the area of similarity is quite significant.
FARMER: Christians have shown support for this idea that the world's major religions are more alike than different. Bahloul says Methodist ministers sent encouraging notes.
BAHLOUL: Three of them said to me: We are going to hold thanksgiving prayer today in our church. We feel like they say it's a special day for all of us, the people who believe.
FARMER: The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has waded through a mountain of hate mail, too, and detractors have tied up the phone lines at the county courthouse. Carolyn Holt is the one answering those calls, from as far away as Europe.
CAROLYN HOLT: You know, they hear it on the news, they see it on CNN or wherever, and they call. What are you doing? Why are you letting the mosque open?
FARMER: But the Murfreesboro isn't unusual. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, nearly a thousand mosques have been built in the U.S. since the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Rutherford County officials argued in court that they have to treat a mosque the same as any church or synagogue. However, opponents sued, until a federal court intervened last month. Now that the mosque is open, Mayor Ernest Burgess says he expects the situation to simmer down, though he doesn't intend to actively promote bridge-building.
MAYOR ERNEST BURGESS: The folks that have somehow believed that something is going to happen, spawned by this religious group here, we have to respect that and we have to be diligent. We have to be alert. But we have to be careful not to overreact.
FARMER: Burgess says fears of local Muslims are unwarranted. Many have lived in the community for 30 years or more. Burgess calls them productive citizens. Still, the mosque has the potential to become a target. Earth-moving equipment was burned at the construction site, and a sign was spray-painted with the words: go home. Mosque leaders have even hired private security. A few peaceful protesters showed up at the first Friday prayers.
DAN QUALLS: My name is Dan Qualls.
FARMER: All right. So the 10 Commandments shirt, the I love Jesus hat...
QUALLS: Yes, sir.
FARMER: What are you trying say, here?
QUALLS: This is my way of making a stand. You know, we are a Christian nation, and we were founded on Christian principles. So I'm going to have a little, simple message to everyone that Jesus is the only way.
FARMER: Members of the mosque say they welcome visitors like Qualls. Dema Sbenaty says the doors are open.
DEMA SBENATY: So, we want them to come see, with their own eyes, exactly what we're doing here, exactly what our view is.
FARMER: Now, Sbenaty says, they always know where to find us. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.