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Islamic Center to establish own mosque in Woodside

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Although the plan, which would allow the mosque to be built in an area zoned for industrial use, still needs to be vetted by the Borough Board, borough president and the city Planning Commission, organizers are confident the final OK is just around the bend.

The city Buildings Department rejected a December 2001 new building permit request because the area was improperly zoned.

"When it starts, it will go fast," said Aqeel Khan, a member of the group's executive board. "We've already lost too much time."

For 22 years, congregants - area workers and residents - at the Islamic Center of Queens have gathered for their five-times daily prayers wherever they could find the space, he said. The group has owned the property, currently occupied by a decrepit one-family home, for about five years, but the real impetus to move forward with the mosque came after Sept. 11.

"There was wide awakening that something was terribly wrong," said Khan, who indicated the backlash against Muslims in the borough was enough to send some friends fleeing the country. But he said the blame for the backlash does not rest solely with the people who harassed innocent Muslims.

The Muslim community, he said, had isolated itself, denying outsiders the opportunity to understand that Islam rejects the senseless acts of violence that occurred on Sept. 11.

"I blame myself," Khan said. "We did not approach."

It is a mistake the group will not repeat, Khan said. Once the three-story mosque, complete with a decorative minaret, is finished, organizers plan to turn it into a community as well as religious center, he said.

The facility and the basement in an adjacent building will house a volunteer ambulance corps to service Woodside and a daycare center for people of all faiths, said Khan, who had volunteered with an ambulance company near his old accounting office in Woodside.

For a time, the faithful met to pray in the same basement the group hopes to turn into a daycare center - a property the city said is zoned for a gas station and garage.

But in late March, the city moved them out, said Khan.

"For the last nine years, I'm praying in the same place," said Enayatullah Machlovi, a member of the center. "One day I came, they locked there and said if someone goes to pray, they'll be arrested."

On March 29, the city Department of Buildings' emergency response team issued a verbal vacate order at 57-16 37th Ave. because there was no emergency exit from the cellar the group had converted into an impromptu mosque, said Buildings spokeswoman Jennifer Givner.

"If there's no second means of egress, that's a biggie," she said. On the same day, the Department of Buildings issued a violation to the property's owner saying the area above the auto shop was structurally unsound.

Left without a place to gather, about 100 congregants have been accommodated in a small tent. The rest have dispersed, diminishing the donor base the Islamic Center was relying on to finance the construction, Khan said.

"This is a working area," Khan said. Pressed for time, area employees cannot travel far during their breaks. "(But) we have certain obligations we have to meet, so where do we go," Khan said of the daily prayer regimen prescribed by the Islamic faith.

During Community Board 2's April meeting, several members of the center spoke to make a simple plea: give us a place to pray.

Although some raised questions about traffic and calls to prayer, the board voted almost unanimously to grant their wishes.

But with the approval, Khan said, the Islamic Center has taken a step toward assuming what he called the changing role all mosques must embrace in a post-Sept. 11 world: educating and serving the community.

"That's the purpose," he said "Let's involve everybody."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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