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Santa In, Religious Symbols Out at Season’s Exhibit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yes, Mission Viejo, there will be a Santa Claus at La Paz Road and Chrisanta Drive this year, but there won’t be a Nativity scene, giant menorah or Ramadan display.

City officials say only secular exhibits will be allowed this holiday season because they were “unable to make the corner available to all faiths” wishing to be represented, as was the custom in past years.

Some Muslim leaders found the timing of the decision to end a three-decade-old holiday tradition to be “rather strange,” especially since last year marked the first time in California that the holy month of Ramadan received equal billing with Christmas at some public spaces.

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“Because of the timing regarding Sept. 11, we should have more reason to show unity within the diversity,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in Anaheim. “I hope we’re not responding to our paranoia or our fears.”

Haitham A. Bundakji, a leader of the Islamic Society of Orange County, also was surprised to see the city do away with religious symbols.

Some Saddened by the Timing

“It’s really sad. After Sept. 11, more people are flocking to churches, mosques and synagogues,” he said. “Removing the religious displays at this time is going to offend quite a few people. I hope and pray to God they didn’t remove [them] because Islam was added recently. If that’s the case, it’s even more sad.”

Assistant City Manager Dennis Wilberg said the decision to discontinue religious displays in favor of a secular one was made by the Mission Viejo Activities Committee. This year, the intersection will feature Santa Claus, a winter wonderland and American flags.

“We simply advised them in a letter that, because it is a public area, they would have to make it available to all faiths,” he said.

Wilberg said the city’s letter was written before Sept. 11. No one with the Mission Viejo Activities Committee could be reached for comment.

Mohammad Malas, a board member with the Orange County Islamic Foundation, said he was told by a committee member that several more faiths were hoping to put up displays this year.

‘We’re Disappointed, but We Understand’

“We had assumed we’d continue our display like last year, but they said they couldn’t accommodate everybody,” Malas said. “We’re disappointed, but we understand. We’d have been upset if they continued with the same kind of displays without us.”

The religious decorations are part of a tradition in which Christians, Jews and, most recently, Muslims were allowed to put up holiday images each December at La Paz and Chrisanta, a gateway to the city.

Last year, a Ramadan sign had to be squeezed in with the nativity scene on a 20-yard-wide plot. The Islamic display also included a small billboard that showed a photograph of the Kaaba--the central shrine of Islam in Mecca, Saudi Arabia--with a message: “Season’s Greetings.”

On the intersection’s other three corners were a giant menorah and dreidels for Hanukkah, a towering Christmas tree and a Santa’s workshop.


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