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BROWN: Plainfield reversal on new mosque ‘a big victory’ for all

The Islamic Foundation of Southwest Suburbs are planning to open a mosque to be called the Plainfield Community Center in this former Christian church on Route 26 in Plainfield. Officers in the group are (l to r) Imran Alikhan, Zaki Basalath, Syed Hussani and Tanveer Iqbal. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

It looks as if Plainfield is going to get that new mosque after all.

Just a month after rejecting a bid by an Islamic group to turn a former Christian church into a mosque, the Plainfield village board reversed course Monday night and voted to move the project ahead.

Score that as a victory for the good guys, which are so few and far between these days that I wanted to be sure to take note.

OPINION

The change of heart came after fair-minded citizens of Plainfield and the surrounding area rallied behind members of the Islamic Foundation of Southwest Suburbs and their application to hold prayer services in a quaint white-steepled church building on Route 126.

Grateful for the support was Zaki Basalath, general manager of the Muslim organization, which has operated in Plainfield for a decade, most recently from a nondescript strip mall storefront.

“It’s a big victory for the entire community at large,” said Basalath, who thanked the ministers of other religious denominations who showed up in support of the mosque, including the pastor of the huge St. Mary Immaculate Parish.

Opponents had cast their objections on the basis of parking and traffic congestion on the already heavily travelled stretch of Route 126 that leads into Plainfield from I-55.

But behind-the-scenes, it was well understood that the overriding motivation was to keep out the Muslims.

“This was an issue of people being afraid. People are afraid of things they don’t understand,” said Perla Ramirez, who helped organize Hate Has No Home in Plainfield after witnessing the August rejection vote.

“I came out of that meeting so passionately angry for him,” said Ramirez, meaning Basalath.

Ramirez, a three-year resident of Plainfield, and a group of like-minded women recruited supporters to pack this week’s village board meeting.

Following the victory on a 4-3 split vote, the 40-year-old Ramirez had a decidedly different reaction.

“I’m still bubbling off of last night,” she told me Tuesday. “We were all hugging each other.”

Plainfield Mayor Michael Collins, who supported the mosque from the start, cast the tie-breaking vote to push it over the top.

How did he explain the reversal?

“There was a lot of public pressure, and I think that maybe that had something to do with it,” said Collins, chalking it up to what happens in government when elected officials realize they are out of step with their constituents.

As to his own reasoning for supporting the mosque, Collins was straightforward.

“I do believe in freedom of religion,” he said.

Even at that, it’s still not quite a done deal. Under village board procedures, the trustees can’t give final approval until their next meeting. Collins said that’s usually just a formality.

Basalath said he was informed he could move ahead with applying for building permits and intends to do so.

The Muslim group paid $580,000 in May for the building from a Montessori school that had owned the site since 1999. It was originally built as the Christian Church of Plainfield.

During the final negotiations, Basalath said his group agreed to turn over the cross on the church steeple to a neighborhood woman who said her husband helped erect it.

The Muslims also agreed not to park on the residential streets near the property and to erect a privacy fence to keep automobile lights from disturbing neighbors. Muslims hold prayer services at earlier hours than do most Christians, which had become a bone of contention.

I asked Basalath if he was gratified that in the end his group seemed to have the support of the majority of Plainfield residents.

“I honestly believe we were welcome since day one,” he said.

I’d also like to think that was true.