Plans to open a mosque in one of Britain's best-known Jewish communities has sparked a heated response from some locals, leading to accusations of Islamophobia.
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The Jewish Chronicle has been reporting on the increasingly fractious developments in recent weeks after the iconic Golders Green Hippodrome – formerly a BBC concert hall seating some 3,000 people – was bought earlier this year by the Centre for Islamic Enlightening, for £5.25 million ($7 million).
The group's spokesman, Ahmed al-Kazemi, was quoted in the Jewish Chronicle as saying that the building would house the Hussainiyat Al-Rasool Al-Adham mosque and Islamic center, serving northwest London's Shia community.
The JC also reported that a petition complaining about the plan was posted on the local Barnet Council's website and received over 4,000 signatures, compared with 93 comments in favor of the mosque.
While some local residents voiced concerns about traffic jams and noise pollution, others questioned the arrival of Muslim worshippers in an area that is famously noted for its Jewish community.
One local resident wrote on the Barnet website that the move would “force the Jewish population to run away,” while another said placing "a large Muslim institution in the heart of one of London’s only two Jewish communities is a highly dangerous undertaking."
However, a prominent local rabbi, Mark Goldsmith, has criticized the comments coming from some members of the community.
"Things have been said about it being the largest mosque in Europe, and that the Shia community is a threat," Goldsmith told the JC. "That language is threatening and misleading.
“I suspect it’s the same sort of thing said about Jews moving to Golders Green in the 1920s," he added. "Golders Green is not entirely Jewish. It’s a special place to live in and we all get along together. That’s what London is about.”
Golders Green, in northwest London, has been home to a large Jewish community since the 1950s. In the most recent census, some 37 percent of the suburb was Jewish, compared to 26 percent being Christian and 12 percent Muslim. (Britain's largest Jewish population is situated further north, in Borehamwood, on the outskirts of London.)
Writing for the JC, Laura Marks – the chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust – questioned whether there would have been a similar response if a Christian center were being established at the site.
"Reading some of the comments on various chat groups by those opposed sent a shiver down my spine," Marks wrote.
"Comments such as 'We don’t know what they are preaching as it's all in Arabic,' 'This will result in violence and terrorism' and 'There is a chance of infiltration of bombers' are Islamophobia plain and simple," she observed.
Marks added: "I wouldn’t for one moment suggest we are using Nazi language, but we must recognise the danger of what we say and how that fuels mistrust, separation, prejudice and hatred."
Although the online petition closed on Friday, the fight looks set to continue in the months ahead.
The Islamic center hopes to open its doors for an initial Open Day in December, with its spokesman, Kazemi, being quoted in the JC as saying, "We are very pleased and excited to be in Golders Green in such a diverse area. We can’t wait to get to know our neighbors."