Muslim sect causes stir in Walkersville

The Baltimore Sun

WALKERSVILLE -- This small town of shady porches and green fields saw its last murder in 1929. The mayor runs a feed and seed store, where on Monday nights he presides over a long-running dominoes game. Many people live here because their parents and grandparents lived here before them.

And they like things the way they are.

So, a Muslim group's plan to purchase 224 acres of farmland to use for an annual convention and other activities has created a stir - one of the biggest in decades.

Residents of the rural hamlet outside Frederick have been buzzing about the issue, talking about it at the post office, the grocery store and the handful of shops along the quiet main street. On Aug. 20, 300 townspeople showed up for a forum at which the president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA fielded questions about everything from his group's construction plans to his beliefs about terrorism.

Two days later, one of the town's five commissioners proposed a zoning amendment that would prohibit places of worship, schools and private clubs, among others, from building on land zoned for agriculture.

"People are very unrested," said Ralph Whitmore, the town burgess, or mayor. "People in Walkersville, and I include myself, we know what a great place it is to live and raise families and are always concerned about things that might change our quality of life."

The Ahmadiyya community has embarked on something of a public relations campaign, taking out ads in the local newspaper and initiating conversations with residents in hopes of assuaging fears.

"People need time to understand what this is about," said Syed Ahmad, who is managing the land purchase for the Silver Spring-based group. "And I think once they get a chance to do that, they'll find out that it doesn't have any significant impact."

Chad Weddle, the commissioner who introduced the zoning amendment, says it is not aimed at any one organization but is part of a larger plan to preserve agricultural and open space. He said he's worried about water, sewage treatment and traffic.

"The property is smack dab in the middle of town, along a congested highway," Weddle said.

He said the zoning amendment, if passed, would not derail the Ahmadiyya plan; the group would have to get town council approval to rezone the farmland.

Ahmad said residents' concerns about infrastructure are unwarranted. The property would be used for an annual three-day convention that could draw 5,000 to 10,000 people, he said. Local members would use the facilities for prayers and meetings on weekends, and occasionally for youth camps, training or classes.

The group wants to build two large gymnasiums, office space and prayer rooms, but much of the farmland would remain untouched, Ahmad said.

Ahsan Zafar, the group's president, said as much at the town meeting, where he explained that members of the Ahmadiyya community - Ahmadis - believe in a messiah who lived 100 years ago. Though they consider themselves Muslims, they have been barred from practicing their religion in Pakistan. About 15,000 Ahmadis live in the United States.

The group's explanations have done little to quell the uproar.

"There are people who are concerned because of who they are. There's no two ways about it. Our relationship with the Muslim community is a little tender," said Whitmore, sitting in his feed and seed shop, surrounded by crushed cigarettes, a sleeping cat and a couple of pals who had gathered to chew the fat one recent afternoon.

A convention of thousands is a lot for a "backwater" town to handle, he said, but the stir is about more than that.

"It's a different culture moving into town," Whitmore said, "a culture we're not used to."

It seems that just about everyone in the town of about 6,000 has an opinion on the matter.

A convention would "swamp" Walkersville, said Doe Horch, a 20-year resident who works at the historic railroad station. "I just don't think it's a good match. They would be far better off in a larger suburban area that's more acclimated to a diverse population."

At the flower shop down the street, owner Lori Himes said religion is not the issue.

"I don't care that it's Muslims," she said. "Logistically, it doesn't make sense to bring something that's a national convention to a place without an airport or hotels. ... Water and sewer are already maxed out here."

Others support the pending purchase and expressed exasperation with neighbors.

"I don't know what the big stir is. People get nervous because our country's at war with similar people in another land," said Michelle Quinn, outside her 19th-century house. "Quite honestly, I don't mind. People are people, and it doesn't matter what religion they are. And if they abide by the laws as everyone else does, it shouldn't be a problem."

In fact, it is the town that could be faced with legal problems, said Garrett Power, a University of Maryland law professor. It is unconstitutional to use regulatory power to discriminate against religion, he said, and the proposed zoning amendment might violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a federal law intended to protect religious groups from discrimination in land-use cases.

The act, which churches, synagogues, temples and mosques around the country have employed successfully in property battles, lay at the heart of the dispute in Baltimore last year over the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartments. Against preservationists' wishes, the Archdiocese of Baltimore ultimately won its fight to raze the building to make way for a prayer garden.

"The government can answer: 'We are not discriminating. We are pursuing ordinary zoning practices here.' But the burden of persuasion will then be on the government to prove that they are not discriminating against religion," Power said. In the case of Walkersville's proposed ordinance change, "my judgment is, if they go to a thoughtful and knowledgeable lawyer, they'll be told, 'Don't do this.'"

But no one is backing off yet.

The town's planning commission will discuss the proposed amendment at a public meeting at the end of September. Meanwhile, the Muslim group - which, under current law, needs approval from the town's Board of Appeals to use the farmland - is proceeding with its application.

"We're going through the process of trying to educate people," Ahmad said. "We're in touch with town officials to make sure we do everything they want us to do. ... We want to keep that positive attitude."

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