As debate rages over an Islamic cultural center and mosque planned in lower Manhattan, local Muslims are readying a new home near downtown Rock Hill.
Group members say they are mindful of the potential for suspicion - at a time of heightened sensitivity toward Islam.
But as they observed Ramadan prayer services Friday in a temporary space, worshippers also expressed hope that the mosque on West Main Street can become a place of understanding.
"Once we get up and running, it's going to be the real test," said James "Jumah" Moore, the group's director and a Rock Hill native. "We will see what the larger reaction is."
For the past three years, Muslims from around York County have held prayer services in borrowed spaces - first a house, then a church activity room and finally a strip mall storefront on Cherry Road.
Now, a vacant lot outside downtown will become the site of Rock Hill's first mosque.
Building going up
Construction is under way on a two-story structure that will be topped by a dome and slender tower known as a minaret, used in Islamic architecture, from which the faithful are called to prayer.
Just west of Wilson Street near the Pilgrims' Inn, the building will house men's and women's prayer rooms and meeting space.
"Because it's something new, there will be questioning," said 25-year-old Sultan Almami, a former Winthrop University student who lives in Rock Hill.
"We would love to see people look at it from the positive side - this is people from here, practicing their religion."
Group members are following the developments in New York City, where opposition has erupted over plans for a Muslim community center near the site of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Opponents argue the center does not belong so close to where terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam killed more than 2,700 people.
Seven-hundred miles away, Rock Hill-area Muslims say they have not encountered problems. City Hall has gotten three or four phone calls from people with questions, but nothing to suggest organized opposition, said city spokeswoman Lyn Garris.
The new mosque represents an opportunity for Rock Hill, said Earnest Archer, chairman of the city's Committee on Human Relations and a retired Winthrop University business professor.
"We're becoming a more cosmopolitan city," Archer said. "As we do so, I hope we continue on a positive track. We're going to have to be able to accept all the people who make up the community."
Many in the group are longtime York County residents who work at places such as York Technical College and CitiFinancial. One member owns a dry cleaning business; two own gas stations.
'Our doors will be open'
Similar Islamic centers operate around South Carolina, including in Columbia and Charleston, but members say the Rock Hill one will operate independently and is not connected to a larger organization.
"Our doors will be open," said Jasiri Makadara, 71. "We want to invite all of the churches to come in and fellowship with us. We believe in trying to establish contact with people."
If there is a backlash, Makadara believes it most likely would come from some outside group looking to exploit the situation for publicity.
"Many of us have children in the schools," Makadara said. "We have engineers. We have retired people like me. We have good relationships" with others in Rock Hill.
A Ramadan prayer service was packed Friday at the temporary space on Cherry Road. Forty men seated on the floor recited prayers and heard from an imam, or worship leader, visiting from Charlotte.
When the center opens in the next month or so, 28-year-old Mohamed Barkhadle said he hopes for a place where people learn about "the real Islam."
Barkhadle moved to Rock Hill from Minneapolis two years ago and works at CitiFinancial in Fort Mill. He takes time to worship with his fellow believers.
Barkhadle said, "I'll tell you, we're here for peace."