By Tim Ghianni
MURFREESBORO, Tenn (Reuters) - The imam and worshipers at a new Tennessee mosque that hosted its first prayers on Friday after fighting for two years to open said they forgive those who have been enemies of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
"Love your neighbor is a concept in every religion," Imam Ossama Bahloul told more than 200 men and women in attendance during his sermon in the mosque that replaces one where the congregation worshiped for 30 years.
To those who opposed the mosque, Bahloul said, "We forgive you all and we welcome you to our facility."
Opponents of the mosque about 30 miles south of Nashville sued to stop it from opening, claiming that not enough notice had been given before a building permit was issued. Residents opposed to the mosque have made allegations that Islam was not a faith protected by the Constitution, and that the mosque sought to impose Islamic law, or Sharia, in the U.S. legal system.
Opposition to the mosque also became an unlikely issue in a Tennessee Republican Congressional primary, with the challenger complaining that freshman Representative Diane Black, who later went on to win the primary, had not been forceful enough in her opposition to the mosque.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has characterized the campaign against the mosque as a "viciously anti-Muslim groundswell" that included accusations of treason and disloyalty along with insinuations that Muslims were predisposed to violence.
Bahloul addressed opponents' allegations in his sermon, saying that the new facility was simply a place for people to pray and children to play. And he said his congregation does abide by the U.S. Constitution.
"You can be a good Muslim and a good American," he said.
Despite the opposition, the mosque was finally able to open this week, in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, and ahead of the Eid al-Fitr feasting holiday that marks Ramadan's end.
The congregation had expected protesters on Friday, but only one showed up. Dan J. Qualls, a Murfreesboro resident who works at a nearby factory, said he felt compelled to carry a message to those at the gleaming new mosque. "Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven," he said. "I'm here to promise that."
Essam Fathy, chairman of the mosque board, said that the center's opening is "a dream come true."
"We hope the people will get to know the real us," Fathy said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Lisa Shumaker)