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New England's Largest Mosque Opens After Years Of Controversy 02:31
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A young girl studies calligraphy in a summer school at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, which officially opens Friday. (Bianca Vazquez Toness)
A young girl studies calligraphy in a summer school at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, which officially opens Friday. (Bianca Vazquez Toness)

The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center was designed to fit into the landscape of Roxbury. Standing about 100 yards away and looking at the mosque, it's the same color — brick and tan tilework — as most of the other buildings, including Roxbury Community College.

But the minaret, it's 140 feet tall, and stands alone among the other squat buildings, and draws the eye, transforming the landscape of this neighborhood.

After nearly 20 years of planning, and intense controversy, the largest mosque in New England is officially opening Friday. Located in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, the $15.6 million project is still only a scaled-down version of what backers orginally hoped for, but they still have large expectations for the center.

On the inside, besides offering a place to worship, mosque leaders hope to transform the Muslim community into more civicly-engaged citizens.

"I feel the Muslim community has a lot to offer. A lot to give," says Bilal Kaleem, the executive director of the Muslim American Society, a non-profit that runs the mosque.

"If Muslim communities were less introverted — which is understandable given the broader social political context currently," Kaleem says, "but are more extroverted and learn to feel a real stake in their communities on a broad scale, it would really have a positive impact on our broader society."

The mosque opened for daily prayers last fall, during Ramadan, and there are meetings here every night.

Twenty-three-year old Fuzieh Jallow meets with a religious education group here each Wednesday. She lives in the Back Bay and is with a friend who comes here from Sharon.

"It's a pretty good mix here. A lot of students," Jallow says. "When you come here for Friday prayers you can meet any kind of person you want to meet."

This summer, more than a dozen children are attending summer school at the mosque to learn the Quran, Arabic language and calligraphy. Each child has a calligraphy brush, ink and lined paper where they're copying verses from the Quran.

Eventually, the mosque planners hope to open a full-time school. But they put that plan on hold after running into intense controversy, which made it difficult to raise money for the project. The trouble — and litigation-- started because of allegations that people leading and financing the mosque had extremist connections and that the city took an inappropriate role in providing land for the mosque.

The lawsuits were dropped, but the critics are still worried about the mosque and plan to demonstrate outside Friday's inauguration.

Dennis Hale, a Boston College professor and a member of Americans for Peace and Tolerance says his group has legitimate concerns about the mosque. "The fear is that the teaching that will take place here, aimed at the children, first of all, the youth, will increase the sense of alienation from America, of Muslim young people," Hale says. "Jew hatred. Hatred of Christians."

People can worry to no end, says Kaleem, from the Muslim American Society. "What I would say is come to the programs," he says. "They're never really for members or Muslims or anyone like that. We advertise our programs pretty broadly, so we encourage everyone out there who's listening to come see if there's anything to worry or not worry about."

When the mosque officially opens Friday, the center hopes to offer programming on everything from marriage to mentoring young people. Kaleem says the mosque has sent community organizers to meet with the different ethnic groups using the mosques, from Somali refugees, to Middle Eastern suburbanites, to African Americans living in Roxbury.

About 600 people already come for Friday prayers. The center is expecting an even larger crowd Friday, when a call will be heard throughout Roxbury. Around noon, a man will climb outside of the mosque and up the 140-foot minaret and give the call to prayer for everyone to hear.

This program aired on June 26, 2009.

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