Bayonne mosque fundraisers are close to meeting goal

Anti-Muslim bias no longer a barrier to construction

Where an abandoned warehouse once stood, Bayonne's first mosque is expected to open before the year's end.
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Where an abandoned warehouse once stood, Bayonne's first mosque is expected to open before the year's end.

It appears that the nonprofit organization raising funds to establish Bayonne’s first Islamic mosque will soon meet its own fundraising goals to finish renovations and set an opening date in the near future.

The 23,000-square-foot property will have access to public transportation, and will contain a prayer hall, classrooms, office, library, and game room.

So far, $500,000 has been raised for the renovations. The group is in the final phase of construction and fundraising, according to an online fundraiser that launched earlier this year.

To date, $57,597 has been raised toward Bayonne Muslims’ goal of $100,000.

Lifelong Bayonne resident Ali Hassan, who’s involved with fundraising efforts, talked about establishing a home base for his religious community, which he said has been historically integrated into Bayonne’s broader social fabric.

“Muslims have called Bayonne their home for many decades,” Hassan said in a statement. “We are lucky to live in a beautiful town, with compassionate kind-hearted neighbors that have allowed us to rent everything from basement space in their most beautiful churches to the attic of Frank’s movie theatre where we currently pray.”

Hassan’s sentiments notwithstanding, Bayonne’s Muslim community did face strong opposition in its pursuit of a center for prayer, religious classes, and other services.

The group struggled to find a permanent home amid several expired leases, and was engaged in a legal battle with the city to obtain zoning permits for construction of the mosque. Members of the public opposed the project based on zoning and other concerns.

“Obstacles were faced, hardships were suffered, yet by the grace of God no impediment proved impossible to overcome,” Hassan said. “It is by the means of this institution that we hope to set up an Islamic Center for knowledge, training, and education of our religion.”

“Our goal is to have the masjid [mosque] open by the end of this year,” Hassan said.

Tribulation

The first procedural obstacle to the center came during a March 6, 2017, Bayonne Zoning Board meeting.

It was determined after a six-hour hearing that the mosque’s blueprint did not include enough parking spaces in accordance with zoning regulations, according to planning board commissioners at the time.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, dozens of residents voiced concerns about the presence of an Islamic Center in Bayonne. The concerns were not related to the enforcement or variance of zoning ordinances, which is what a zoning board evaluates.

The zoning board, however, specifically said that parking regulations were the reason for the denied zoning permit.

Mayor Jimmy Davis commented on the meeting a day after the zoning permits were denied.

“For over a decade the Muslim community in Bayonne has gathered peacefully and quietly in the basement of St. Henry’s parish,” he said. “Their hope like that of the Polish, Irish and Italian immigrants before them was to have a place of their own to gather and pray. Let’s be clear that the denial by the zoning board does not change the fact that the Muslim community is part of our community. I hope that their faith in our community, their trust in our system of government, their belief in the essential goodness of people remains. I ask that going forward we continue to respect each other’s views and celebrate our differences as in the end it is those differences that make our city great.”

The Bayonne Muslims group sought a variance for 36 spaces, well below 62 spaces which were required at the time. Parking requirements are a standard factor in any application brought before Bayonne’s zoning board, in accordance with the city’s Master Plan.

Two months later, Bayonne Muslims filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Bayonne, alleging that the zoning board’s decision was discriminatory.

The suit alleged that the city employed land use rules in to place “unreasonable limitations and burdens” upon the mosque’s proponents. They argued that the mosque was protected by the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The suit stated that the mosque would have provided more off-street parking than all other houses of worship in Bayonne other than one church.

The U.S. Department of Justice conducted a separate investigation into whether the zoning board’s ruling was discriminatory.

After roughly a year, the city agreed to pay $400,000 to settle the suit. About $120,000 of that settlement went toward the construction of the mosque. The rest was for legal fees and other expenses.

The Bayonne Zoning Board approved the plans for the mosque in March 2018 when legal proceedings concluded.

After Bayonne Muslims secured the permit, the DOJ investigation was called off.

Anti-Muslim sentiment was rampant

The 2017 zoning board hearing in which the mosque construction was denied, drew hundreds of Bayonne residents for the public discussion. There were several postponements before that meeting.

It was also preceded by an anti-mosque protest outside city hall, along with a counter-protest.

While some of the mosque’s opponents claimed that they were against the construction based solely on the basis of traffic and parking concerns, other residents condemned Islam publicly and on social media.

Protesters held signs and distributed fliers, citing the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and other acts of terrorism as reason enough to oppose a mosque in Bayonne.

Board of Education Trustee Michael Alonso pointed to the June 6, 2016 shooting, known as the Orlando Nightclub Massacre, in a statement he wrote against the mosque while it was still in its proposal stage.

“In light of the Orlando terrorist attack recently committed in the name of Islam, a mosque in Bayonne would be unsafe and unwise,” Alonso said in a statement.

Vandalism and threats were reported.

A 20-year-old Bayonne resident, Jonathon Hussey, was charged in Oct. 2016 with spraying anti-Muslim graffiti on a building used by the Muslims for prayers. Police said the vandalism included phrases such as “F— Muslims,” “F—Arabs,” and “Donald Trump.”

In January 2017, a local pastor’s home was vandalized with anti-Muslim graffiti. Grace Bible Fellowship’s Pastor, Joseph Basile, placed signs in his window which said “Save Bayonne,” and “Stop the Mosque.” His house was vandalized with graffiti that read “F— Islam.”

Basile’s wife, Patricia Basile, told members of the press that she was threatened by a man who approached her doorstep because of the anti-mosque signs in the Basiles’ window.

Once a settlement was reached in 2018 between the city and Bayonne Muslims, public controversy appears to have subsided. Religion-oriented speech against the mosque, previously described as “ugly” by several zoning board commissioners, has been relatively rare. There have not been any criminal incidents with ties to those who oppose the mosque’s construction.

For updates on this and more stories check hudsonreporter.com or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.