AUGUSTA — A proposal to build the city’s first mosque, across from an empty church building off South Belfast Avenue, will go before the Planning Board later this month.
The Islamic Society of Greater Augusta, a nonprofit group founded in 2009, is looking to build a 70-seat, 1,232-square-foot mosque and a 21-car parking lot at a 7-acre property on the dead end St. Andrews Street, between a vacant church building and South Belfast Avenue.
The society now rents office space on Spruce Street that it uses for prayer sessions.
Since the society was founded, it has been planning a mosque to serve a small Muslim community, said Ather Mohammed, a 37-year-old pharmacist who lives in Augusta and is involved with the society.
He said the society’s goal is to “grow spirituality as a group,” instead of as more isolated pockets of families and individuals.
“It’s something that actually better suits our needs, rather than being an office space kind of thing,” Mohammed said.
The mosque’s entry won’t happen without a little culture shock. A city councilor representing the area said he’s been contacted by two residents who are concerned about the mosque plan, citing lack of public information about the group.
A 2010 census by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies found 1,332 Muslim adherents in Maine. The group defined adherents as people who regularly attend worship services.
That census also found five Muslim congregations in the state. There are already mosques in Portland, Lewiston and Orono.
Mohammed said the active Islamic community in Kennebec County is made up of about 15 families, many of them white converts to the religion.
For example, Mohammed, from India, is married to Mary Mohammed, a Whitefield native who is also a pharmacist. The society’s treasurer, Jeremy Jamel Wadleigh, of Augusta, is a Waterville native who converted to Islam.
Mohammed said others in the group include pharmacists and doctors from India, Pakistan and countries in Africa and the Middle East. Dr. Aamir Mushtaq, a physician at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, is listed on state corporation records as the group’s registered agent.
Almost all of the families involved have lived in the area for at least five years, Mohammed said. He has been here for 10 years.
Matt Nazar, Augusta’s development director, said the mosque site needs city approval because it won’t be used as a residential parcel. The city’s Planning Board will consider the mosque request Nov. 12. A letter from society president Nazeer Khaja to the city said the project could be completed within six months of approval.
Augusta assessment records show the society bought the lot in December 2012 for $45,000. Khaja’s letter said since then, the group has been working with builders to decide what type of structure to build.
Nazar said it would be a ranch-style building, and Mohammed said the society’s money to build and maintain the mosque will come from contributions from local Muslims and fundraising done in other Islamic communities in Maine and elsewhere in New England.
The mosque could be one of two upcoming places of worship on St. Andrews Street, after St. Andrew Catholic Church was closed in 2011.
Dave Guthro, a spokesman for Maine’s Catholic Diocese, said in an email that the diocese is in talks with the Kennebec Community Church, now on Glenridge Drive in Augusta, about that property. However, “there is no dollar figure, agreement or deal at this point,” he said.
So the old St. Andrew’s building stands vacant there, alongside a parking lot with circular skid marks where cars have done “doughnuts” in recent years. The lot the mosque would be built on is now mostly wild, containing weeds, trees and a small brush pile.
Darek Grant, the Augusta city councilor representing Ward 2, said he has heard complaints from two constituents who live near the proposed mosque.
Grant said he hadn’t heard of the organization before the mosque plans, and the city residents who have contacted him want more information about the group, which he called a “fair question.”
“They’re actually surprised that this group is in Augusta,” Grant said. “I think that’s certainly a sensitive issue to deal with.”
Mohammed said all will be welcome at the mosque, including people with questions about who’s involved with group as well as questions about Islam in general.
“It’s going to be pretty open,” he said. “That basically breaks down barriers, big time.”