Small group protests the building of a mosque in Temecula

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A small group of protesters took over a patch of grass across from the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley on Friday for a vocal but relatively tame protest against a proposed mosque, though they were greatly outnumbered by supporters from area churches who were there to support the Islamic Center.

The rally was held during the Islamic Center’s Friday prayers and, at the urging of organizers, a few protesters brought their dogs, which many Muslims would consider an insult.

“This is America. This is a Christian country, this is not a Muslim country,” said Zorina Bennett, 50, of Temecula, one of about 20 who attended the anti-mosque rally. “They are known terrorists. Read the Koran. They are trained to kill people from the time they’re in their youth.”

Bennett took her dog Meadow to the protest, knowing that many Muslims believe that the saliva of dogs is impure.

David French, a retired Methodist pastor, joined about 60 others who were there to support the Islamic Center and its plans for a new mosque.

“I don’t think they represent Temecula at all,” French said of the anti-mosque demonstrators. “They’re a fringe group, and they use fear as their main ingredient,” he said. “It’s ignorance. It’s sad.”

Supporters of the Islamic Center sat peacefully on fold-out chairs in front of the center, though a few supporters walked across the street for sporadic shouting matches with the protesters. A member of the center created a stir when he and his wife tried to hand out roses to the protesters, with many refusing to accept the home-grown flowers.

The protest lasted a little less than two hours and no arrests were reported. One of the most heated moments came around 12:20 p.m. when Fred Carlson, a heavy equipment operator from Temecula, drove his pickup truck past the Islamic Center twice, calling Muslims “pedophiles” and hurling a few curse words.

“They should step forward and denounce terrorism 100%,” Carlson said later, calling Islam a “Stone Age” religion.

The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley is moving ahead with plans to build a 24,943-square-foot mosque on a vacant four-acre plot in northeast Temecula. The proposal has stirred some hostility in the mostly conservative community in Riverside County, with opponents saying they fear the mosque will bring unwanted traffic and noise and attract Islamic extremists.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, called many of the protesters’ accusations “plain ignorance.” He said American Muslims strongly denounce terrorism, saying it is contrary to true Islamic beliefs, and he predicted that Friday’s protest would do little to influence the city’s review of the proposed mosque.

“Fear and hysteria are like the scum on top of water — it will float away,” he told the crowd of Islamic Center supporters.

Organizers of the rally posted announcements on websites affiliated with the “tea party” movement in southwest Riverside County.

But leaders of tea party chapters in Temecula, Murrieta, Hemet and Menifee said their organizations had no involvement with the mosque protest. They condemned both the use of dogs to harass Muslims and also the Council on American-Islamic Relations for insinuating that tea party members were behind the rally and are racists.

Protest organizer Diane Serafin, 59, who said she has been active in both Murrieta and Temecula tea party events, said the rally was held by “concerned citizens” and was not an official tea party event. Serafin had denied earlier this week that she was directly involved in promoting Friday’s demonstration.

She criticized area Muslims for being part of a “national political movement” to impose Sharia law in America, saying the religious doctrine allows for the mistreatment of women and undercuts American values. “We already have Al Qaeda cells in Southern California,” Serafin said.

Al-Marayati said Muslims are loyal Americans and strong believers in equal rights and equal justice, the ideals that attracted many Muslim immigrants to this country.

Leaders of the Temecula Islamic Center, operating in an industrial area of the southwest Riverside County city, said they have been dismayed by some of the allegations and objections to the new mosque because the organization has been in the city for more than a decade without incident.

But on Friday, they said, they were heartened by the strong show of support from people of all faiths and beliefs.

“This is much better than I could have even expected. It helps show that we are part of this community, that we belong here,” said Hadi Nael, chairman of the Temecula Islamic Center.

The proposal for the mosque is expected to go before the Temecula Planning Commission in October or November.