Plans to build a mosque on a nearly 12-acre site in the Creswell area southeast of Bel Air have drawn condemnation from local residents, even threats via social media to destroy the house of worship.
The nonprofit Harford Islamic Center has submitted plans to Harford County to subdivide an 11.87-acre lot out of a larger 51-acre parcel at Route 543 and Nova Scotia Road, and convert buildings on the site into a 60-seat house of worship.
A preliminary plan to create the lot and a site plan to build the mosque are slated for review Wednesday morning by the county’s Development Advisory Committee. The meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. in the first-floor conference room in the county administration building at 220 S. Main St. in Bel Air, according to the agenda posted on the county website.
“We’re hoping things go smoothly,” Zainab Chaudry, director of the Maryland office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, said. “We’re hoping that there’s an opportunity for civil dialogue.”
Chaudry, who has been working with Harford Islamic Center board members as they grapple with the community outrage, said she plans to attend the development committee hearing. The national nonprofit CAIR is an advocacy and civil rights organization that works on behalf of Muslims, according to its website.
Officials with CAIR worked with local law enforcement and the leaders of the Maryum Islamic Center in Columbia last March after a perceived threat against that center was posted on Facebook days after worshippers were shot and killed at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019.
The threats against the Harford Islamic Center were reported Monday to local and state law enforcement, as well as the FBI, according to Chaudry.
“We take the safety of these [Muslim] communities seriously,” she said.
Chaudry noted in a follow-up text message Monday that Harford County leaders are asked to “publicly condemn the incitement to violence and hateful threats, and to help sanity prevail.”
Harford County Councilman Curtis Beulah, whose district includes the area with the mosque property, declined to comment on the project Tuesday, noting it could come before the county’s Board of Appeals — the seven-member County Council also serves as the zoning appeals board.
A statement was posted on the Harford County Government page on Facebook Tuesday in response to some comments made about the project: “County Executive Barry Glassman reminds everyone: We do not tolerate violence against anyone and expect our citizens to be a model of civility for the state and the nation.”
A link to the county’s Choose Civility campaign, which has been ongoing since June of 2018, follows the statement.
Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the county government, said the statement is not a direct response to the mosque project, which is going through the Department of Planning and Zoning’s typical development review process.
“It continues our messaging on civility, but [it] is also in response to nasty comments that we’ve been made aware of on Facebook that relate to this project,” she said Tuesday.
Mumby noted that reviews of the plans "will proceed, irrespective of Facebook comments.”
“The development review process is based on established regulations, and that process will be applied to this project as it would be to any other,” she said.
Mosque meant to serve community
The property in Creswell is owned by the Churchville-based Crescent Investment Group LLC, according to the preliminary subdivision plan. The 11.87-acre lot, which the mosque is slated for, is on land zoned for rural residential use.
The site is between Route 543 and a handful of houses along Quail Creek Court. The Highlands School, a private school serving children with special needs, is just south of the site.
“We aim to serve the needs of the local Muslim community and seek to strengthen interfaith harmony, peace and love to enrich the fabric of our county,” said Dr. Faisal Sayeed, president of the Harford Islamic Center board, in an emailed statement Sunday.
Multiple comments have been posted on Facebook in recent days, though, expressing anger and fear about the proposed mosque. Many posters describe the facility as a way for Muslims to increase their influence in Harford County, Maryland and the nation. Muslims have been described in posts as invaders and that Islam preaches only killing of non-believers.
Other people posted direct threats to the mosque, such as to “burn it the [expletive] down” if the facility is built. Another poster encouraged people to “grab your weapons and protest this. If they promote violence, we can bring it. Death to Allah.”
A search of “Harford Islamic Center” on Facebook brings up several images of a logo posted on the HIC’s website, that of white Arabic letters on a black background. Chaudry agreed that the image could bring up thoughts of the flag of the Islamic State terror organization, which also has Arabic writing on a black background.
The image on the center’s site is not related to terrorism “by any stretch of the imagination,” though, Chaudry said.
“This is an example of how ignorance and fear can lead to the incitement of violence, because this has nothing to do with terrorist organizations,” she said of the posting of the HIC image.
Chaudry stressed that the Arabic phrase on the HIC logo means “in the name of God, most gracious, most merciful,” a standard phrase used throughout the Quran, Islam’s holy book, and used during prayers.
“After reviewing some of the social media posts, it is evident that there are community members who, based primarily on misinformation regarding this project and perhaps their own views about Islam as a whole, have reservations and concerns about our plans to establish a house of worship,” Sayeed said in his statement.
“The misunderstandings expressed in these posts further underscore the urgent need for an Islamic house of worship to help correct the perception of Islam in Harford County and foster comradery among the residents of Harford County,” he added.
Sayeed stressed that Islam is one of three Abrahamic faiths, along with Christianity and Judaism, all of which profess “the same values of morality, human decency and sanctity of all life.”
“Harford County is home to tens of Muslim families, who work as physicians, emergency first responders, businesses, educators and have been law-abiding, taxpaying citizens of Harford County for decades,” he stated. “These families come from many different backgrounds and contribute to society in countless ways. We are proud to call Harford County home!”