Muslim sect resisted in Md.

Walkersville, USA - Intisar Abbasi looks over the rolling farm field that his Muslim sect hopes to buy for a worship center and annual convention site. The Pakistani immigrant knows many in this small town of unpainted barns and church suppers are "troubled by foreigners" and suspicious of Muslims in particular.

If the local people who spoke out against his group's plans at recent public meetings knew more about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, he says, they would drop their opposition.

"It really, really hurts," says Abassi, 60, a retired U.S. Army pharmacist who works on biowarfare vaccines at nearby Fort Detrick. "We were chased out of Pakistan just because of our religious belief, and then to come here and have to put up with this again — it's a double-whammy."

The controversy here is the latest involving Muslim efforts to build or expand mosques and community centers. Local opposition has stalled projects in Pompano Beach, Fla.; Louisville; and Rockaway, N.J. Opponents often cite traffic or loss of tax revenues but, says Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, anti-Muslim bias plays a role.

"It's often couched in terms of parking or traffic or other logistical issues, but often when you scratch the surface you get statements about mosques being centers for terrorism," Hooper says. "It's an unfortunate fact that we have to live with in the post-9/11 era."

Area residents apprehensive

More than 300 people in this town of 6,000 turned out in August for a forum on the plan by the Ahmadis, a sect whose U.S. headquarters are an hour's drive south in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring. They came to hear about a proposed multipurpose recreation center with separate gymnasiums for men and women on two of the tract's 224 acres. The buildings would be used for prayer services, religion classes and athletics by 22 local families.

More contentiously, though, the property would host an annual three-day convention that could draw 5,000 people a day.

Soon after the forum, a planning commissioner proposed a zoning change to bar places of worship, as well as schools and private clubs, from being built on land zoned for agriculture. The measure will be discussed at a public meeting next week.

Among those opposed is Clark Millison, 70, a retired graphic designer. "I don't know that much about Muslims," he says, "but I understand they want to take over the world and want us all dead."

The group has launched a campaign to answer questions and quell concerns. The Ahmadis have held public meetings, run newspaper ads, spoken at churches and knocked on doors.

"We want to reach out to everybody in that town," says Syed Ahmad, the group's project manager. "There's a lot of misinformation."

Mansoora "Manni" Malik, 40, an information technology consultant who wears a hijab, or head scarf, and whose husband works for the Department of Homeland Security, spoke recently to senior citizens.

She says concerns about traffic are valid but notes that a "deeper fear" that this bedroom community for Washington and Baltimore is losing its rural, white character.

Ralph Whitmore, the burgess, or mayor, of Walkersville, says most in this "backwater" oppose the property sale because of worries about increased traffic and strains on sewer and water lines, but many just don't want the group in their midst.

"There's a lot of animosity. No, that's not a good word. There's a lot of, shall we say, apprehension," says Whitmore, who owns a feed store. "I do not believe this is going to be a terrorist training center. I just haven't heard enough outrage" from Muslims over the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We don't begrudge the right" of Ahmadis to practice their religion, says Mary Mowen, 53, a college English tutor, "but we don't feel that Walkersville is the best place" for them to do it.

Gerald Hanberry of Glade United Church of Christ is one of the few pastors of Walkersville's 18 churches who support the group. "There are people adamantly opposed to a Muslim group doing anything in this community," he says. "I don't believe land-use decisions should be made on the basis of religious faith."

Federal law prohibits local governments targeting religious groups in zoning cases, but proving that land-use decisions are made on religious grounds rather than legitimate concerns about traffic or neighborhood character is difficult, says Marci Hamilton, a religious law expert at Yeshiva University in New York. If Walkersville rejects the group's request for a special exception to build on the tract, she says, "It's not going to be easy" to prove bias.

No ties to mainstream Muslims

Yet that's exactly what John Zimmerman thinks is behind the uproar over the land just beyond the treeline at the edge of his dairy farm. He says the Ahmadis are "as nice as 90% of the people" here and that he's more concerned about crime at a nearby public housing development than terrorism. As for crowds, he says few here complain when thousands descend on the town each year for July Fourth fireworks.

Zimmerman, a member of the town planning commission, says, "I'd sooner see them than 500 houses up next to us," he says, noting the fate of many area farms that are now subdivisions.

Town officials will likely make a final decision by the first week in December.

Ahmadis are considered heretics by Islam's Sunnis and Shiites and maintain no ties to mainstream Muslims. The sect began in 19th-century India when followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad proclaimed him the messiah, fulfilling Christian and Muslim prophecies of a second coming. Although the Ahmadis' holy book is the Quran, the Pakistani government has declared them non-Muslims.

Abbasi, the pharmacist, says he left Pakistan after his house was stoned and other family members saw their homes and businesses destroyed by mobs. Today, there are 15,000 Ahmadis in the USA.

The Ahmadis "have never been associated with any form of violence," says Carl Ernst, an Islamic studies scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "These people have been on the receiving end of fundamentalist violence. They are not the source of it."