HAMIL R. HARRIS
THE WASHINGTON POST
There were about 15 of them there at the beginning, Turkish American engineers who in the early 1990s worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and at the University of Maryland in College Park.
They lived in communities scattered throughout Prince George’s County, and as Turks and Muslims, they wanted a place nearby where they could meet and worship.
So in 1993, they joined together and purchased a 10.7-acre wooded area in Lanham from the Salvation Army for $302,000. Later, they would purchase an additional six acres, spending upward of nearly $1 million for the land.
On Saturday, several thousand people are expected to attend the official opening of the , which bills itself as the largest Islamic campus “in the Western Hemisphere.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, is scheduled to attend.
On Wednesday, Mehmet Gormez, Turkey’s head of religious affairs, toured the $110 million facility, which was financed and built by his country. It includes a 20,236-square-foot mosque, a cultural center, guest homes and an underground sports complex that has a soccer field, basketball arena and swimming pool.
“I am very excited about being here,” Gormez said, adding that the land was little more than a swamp when he first saw it. “It shows that people can come up with wonderful architecture, wonderful buildings.”
I am very excited about being here. It shows that people can come up with wonderful architecture, wonderful buildings.”
-Mehmet Gormez, Turkey’s head of religious affairs
Gormez said he hopes that the facility will be used as a venue for peace and that Muslims using the center will have a greater sense of belonging to the surrounding community and the country.
The center opens at a time of heightened fears about Muslims after attacks in Brussels and Paris by members of the Islamic State and anti-Islam rhetoric by presidential campaigns. But even before the most recent terror attacks, a mosque opening has led to protests and worse.
In November, a meeting about the proposed expansion of a mosque in Fredericksburg, Virginia, was interrupted by protesters calling Muslim residents terrorists and suggesting that the mosque would be a site for Syrian refugees.
Although officials in Prince George’s say they are unaware of any threats made against the Diyanet Center, there are plans to install additional security measures there, and those who want to attend the opening must obtain security clearance.
The presence of Turkey’s president at the opening, however, has the potential to cause even more unease: The country’s military campaign against Kurdish militants has been strongly criticized by the United States.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), despite receiving invitations personally delivered to his office in Annapolis, has declined to attend the opening. He has not given a reason. Other elected officials from the Washington region are expected to attend.
The mosque was built in the style of 16th-century Ottoman architecture. Materials were shipped from Turkey, including marble that was used in four pillars that bear the weight of the central dome. The mosque has two minarets that will stand as a reminder of when Muslim leaders climbed the stairwells to sound the call to prayer.
Craftsmen and laborers, 150 in all, came from Turkey to do the work.
The center opened unofficially in October, drawing Turks and Muslims from across the region with a host of activities aimed at bringing their people together and presenting Islam in a more positive light.
“The motivation behind this project is for the Turkish people to show its culture in a way that this culture deserves,” said Yasar Colak, president of the Diyanet Center of America.
County officials have embraced the center and commended its leadership for working with them throughout the building process.
“It is a great symbol for our county,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III. “The new facility is phenomenal. They did great work.”
But the project did not come without strong concerns from neighbors upset at the size of the complex, the length of the construction time and the noise it brought, in addition to other issues that have come up since its completion.
“There is a real drainage problem, with the water coming from the center, that needs to be resolved,” said Dorothy Durham, who lives behind the center. She and other neighbors say that because the land was elevated to build the campus, storm water now flows into their back yards.
Sharif Salim, a retired Prince George’s school principal who was hired to serve as community liaison for the Diyanet Center, said a contractor has been hired to improve the drainage system.
Peggy Webster, vice president of the Pressley Manor Neighborhood Association, where the center is located, said she, too, was concerned about the construction and still has worries about the drainage issue. But Webster, who has lived in the community since 1967, said center officials have been welcoming to the neighbors, inviting them to tour the facility and listening to their concerns.
The center has served as a venue for a health symposium, workshops and other programs for neighbors. Salim noted that the DuVal High School swim team has been invited to use its Olympic-size swimming pool.
Heidi Wahba, a native of Egypt who lives in Clarksburg, Maryland, often takes her children to the mosque from her home in Clarksburg.
“It allows my kids to relate more to our faith. To see a big masjid [mosque] like this makes us proud,” Wahba said. “It will help us to introduce more people to Islam, and come and learn more. It definitely bothers me that people get the wrong reputation from all the media and some candidates. We want people to see the truth about this religion.”
Prince George’s County Council member Dannielle M. Glaros, D-District 3, said that while her constituents were concerned about the center during construction, many are now cautiously optimistic about what its opening might mean for the county.
“I am excited that so much investment has gone into our community,” Glaros said. “This is an opportunity for residents of Prince George’s County to engage in a faith dialogue.”
Ahmet Aydilek, who serves as secretary general for the center, said he wants Diyanet to be of service to its neighbors.
‘This is not just a Muslim mosque,” he said. “The purpose is to serve the entire community. Ninety percent of the people who come here for prayer are not Turkish.”