MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — The same financial difficulties that face houses of worship across the country have stalled a 10-year effort by New Hampshire's small Muslim community to construct their first mosque — and build a bridge to the non-Muslim neighbors who never wanted it there in the first place.
A decade after the still-unfinished red brick structure began rising out of a stony hillside overlooking the Merrimack Valley, the Islamic Society of New Hampshire says it has raised about $2 million for the project, less than half of what it needs to complete construction.
Now the society, which relies on donations from its very small local Muslim community, is casting a wider net — to Muslims around the world — hoping to raise enough to finish the building before it deteriorates past the point of saving.
"Everywhere else mosques are being built, the Muslim population itself is pretty dense and much higher compared to what we have in New Hampshire," said Mohammad Islam, chairman of the mosque's building committee. "And within that, the percentage of affluent Muslims, professionals in the space of doctors, engineers and businessmen, is much higher. Over here, we're hitting the same group of people again and again for donations."
The number of mosques in the United States rose from 1,209 in 2000 to 2,106 in 2011, the latest year that data is available, according a report issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Over roughly the same period, the number of Muslims fell in New Hampshire, from an estimated 3,782 adherents in 2000 to 1,616 in 2010, ranking the state 46th, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.
The numbers of Muslims — like estimates of any faith group — need to be viewed cautiously: Because the U.S. Census doesn't ask about religion, counts rely on self-reporting, institutional estimates and, often, extrapolation.
New Hampshire Muslims have three Islamic centers — usually in rented office space — where they can pray, the same number found in states including Alaska, North Dakota and Wyoming. But New Hampshire lags behind other sparsely populated states such as Maine and South Dakota with five each, Idaho (6) and Nevada (7). Those numbers pale compared to states like New York with 257 centers and mosques and California with 246.
The small centers can't handle major festivals like Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, so the New Hampshire society has rented out stadiums and university gymnasiums for bigger events. The 17,000-square-foot-mosque would provide a central gathering place and realize a goal dating to 1987, when a student at then-New Hampshire College rented a Manchester apartment to serve as a temporary mosque.
In 1998, the society bought 2.75 acres to build a true mosque, a dome-topped, three-story octagonal structure with plenty of prayer and meeting space. Construction started eight years later and, beyond fundraising, there were hurdles from the start.
Zoning challenges came from neighbors who worried their quiet way of life would come to an end, ruined by cars spilling out of the parking lot and lining the street. In 2013, some kids smashed windows, causing more than $30,000 in damage.
There were strong — sometimes harsh — words. In 2006, Douglas Lambert, a Gilford businessman, wrote an op-ed in which he mused: "How many mosques have been used throughout the Moslem (sic) world as ammo dumps and hideouts for murderous thugs?"
Now 51, Lambert said he has spent a lot of time "agonizing" about whether he still feels the same.
"And I do," he said, while acknowledging there are "no doubt good and moderate Muslims."
"There's a new player in the mix with ISIS and I take very seriously their very public threats that they're coming to get us," he said.
Islam, the building project leader, wants people to look at the society's record.
"Given the current geopolitical situation, I can understand someone saying 'What could happen?'" he said. "But we've been operating since 1998, and nothing has happened. It's not just because we got lucky."
"We're here for peaceful purposes," he said.
New Hampshire's Muslims aren't the first to encounter resistance, said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.
"Generally you find opposition that is often couched in the form of parking or property values," Hooper said. "But when you scratch the surface, you find some level of Islamophobia there as well."
New Hampshire Muslim leaders say they hope to build a bridge by building the mosque.
"Our own place will give us the opportunity to introduce to them our faith," said Dr. Shuja Saleem, a member of the board. "We want to promote a dialogue. We don't want people to judge us on other people's perceptions."