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Mosque Expects Worship, Peace (April 13, 2007)

Organizer has worked to allay neighbors’ perceptions
(Photos by MARY SCHROEDER/Detroit Free Press) Imam Steve Elturk is in the main prayer hall. Next  to him is the mihrab, or niche, where he will pray. The niche faces Mecca, a destination of pilgrims in the Islamic world.
All signs of intimidation toward the Islamic Organization of North America and its president, Imam Steve Elturk, have stopped.
No more broken lightbulbs on the back of the Warren mosque. No more drunkards showing up at night to confront Elturk. And no more residents demanding he prove that he isn't a terrorist. "We had to go through a lot, and we're still not there yet," Elturk, a Lebanon native, said Wednesday.
A year after Elturk's plans to open Warren's first mosque drew outrage from some residents who didn't want it in their neighborhood, the Troy resident is preparing to open next month to 200 Muslim families.
To counter any lingering negative feelings, Elturk plans an education campaign for the mosque's neighbors that will include an open house and pamphlets about the mosque. Barbara Sollose, who lives near the mosque, said neighbors are accustomed to the idea of having a new house of worship nearby. But, she said, neighbors will feel better after looking inside.
"I think that they would like to go in and see what is going on," said Sollose, who heads the Central Homeowners of Warren. "I think, now that the shock is over, everything is going to be fine."
Elturk has spent the last year fighting opposition.
Some residents feared a loudspeaker attached to the building would blare calls to prayer. To quell those concerns, Elturk signed documents saying he'll never have a loudspeaker. Last June, several glass bottles were broken in the mosque's parking lot, and a floodlight and electric meter were shattered.
And in January, Elturk was at the mosque when a man started shouting racial epithets at him. The man pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 days in jail.
Although Elturk has had fewer problems in the last couple of months, he had a harsh reminder this month of how intolerant some people can be. The Assyrian Church of the East, a Catholic church, was vandalized with anti-Arab graffiti. Two men were charged Tuesday with the vandalism.
"It tells me that there's still racism, and it is not just against Muslims but against Arabs, too," Elturk said.
Michail Curro, director of the Interfaith Center for Racial Justice who recently led a five-week session in Warren to educate about 50 residents about Islam, said the ignorance is hard to break through. Some people, he said, will want to lump all Muslims with a small number identified as terrorists.
"There's an unfortunate lack of knowledge about the diversity within Islam," said Curro, who previously headed a Christian church in Mt. Clemens. "You could never pinpoint Christians as one person acting out. People tend to want to do that when they think about another religion." Steve Spreitzer, director of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, agrees, saying that many non-Muslims have limited knowledge of the religion, which can lead to assumptions that might not be accurate.
"There is a good deal of ignorance because of isolation," Spreitzer said. "The days we're most segregated is when we worship. Get to know the members of that mosque. A lot of the fear and anxiety will yield."
Elturk said a learning center in the mosque will help answer people's questions about the religion.
"We're here to make things better," he said.
Contact DAN CORTEZ at 586-469-1827 or dcortez@freepress.com.