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Zoned out

"Zoned out" Continued...

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

Norgalis said the council was not targeting the mosque, just making an overdue adjustment in passing the ordinance. Bridgewater is home also to a handful of Christian churches, a Jewish synagogue, a Sikh temple, and a Hindu temple. The Hindu temple clashed with the zoning board for five years until it scaled down its expansion plans. Episcopalians in town were not as persistent, and they abandoned expansion plans after the zoning board resisted.

Christian Bridgewater leaders have differing perspectives about Al Falah but haven't formally opposed it. Tim Locke, pastor at Grace Community Church, said diversity is an opportunity. "God is bringing the Arabs to us to evangelize them," he said. "I'm not opposed to sharing my neighborhood with them."

Elliott Tepperman, a Bridgewater resident and rabbi acting as spokesman for Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote on the group's website: "Our religious community has living memory of being mistreated for our differences, and we believe that we have an obligation to speak out against such mistreatment of others. . . . The verse most often repeated in Torah is 'Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'"

Stephen Eisdorfer, a lawyer representing neighborhood homeowners, specializes in land use issues. He said Bridgewater operated correctly on new legislation passed by Gov. Chris Christie, which takes effect May 5 and prohibits changes to zoning ordinances if they affect previously submitted applications. Eisdorfer has represented houses of worship including Hindu and Buddhist temples, synagogues, and Baptist churches. "The issues are always the same: noise, visual impact, and traffic," said Eisdorfer. "Everybody wants to go to church, but nobody wants it next door."

James Yee, Executive Director of the New Jersey Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), questioned the timing of the council's passing a new ordinance. "Basically, what [the town council] did would be illegal soon," said Yee. He said he sensed animosity toward Muslims when an estimated 700 residents showed up for the town council vote.

But Jim Lefkowitz, founder of the Somerset County Tea Party, believes there are good reasons to question the motives of CAIR and Al Falah. In 1997, CAIR was named an unindicted co-conspirator when the Holy Land Foundation was convicted of supporting Hamas and other terrorist organizations with $12 million.

"Build as many mosques as you want, but I'm going to ask questions and not apologize," said Lefkowitz. He said terrorists had affiliations with mosques in New York, and he and others want to know more about Al Falah's funding sources: "Where is the money coming from?"

The Chughtai Foundation, with assets totaling $1.5 million as of its 2009 IRS form 990 filing, is contract owner of the property. Pat Kelly, Sales Associate with Re/Max Realty, who represents the property owner, says the closing of the sale depends upon approval from the township. If it closes, the foundation will essentially donate the property to Al Falah. Meanwhile, deposit for the transaction is held in escrow. Kelly would not comment on the negotiated price, but the property is listed at $2.4 million.

The foundation shares a post office box in the next town with Equity Packaging Inc. Zahid Chughatta, a native of India who also uses Chughtai as a last name, is the foundation's president and earned his master's in industrial engineering at Rutgers University. In 1991 Chughatta founded Equity Packaging, which specializes in packaging for pharmaceuticals, food, and medical devices. Its website says it operates internationally in Europe, Asia, and South America.

Chughatta, a board member of Al Falah, is also No. 1,614 on a petition for Sami Al-Arian's release. Al-Arian is a Palestinian born in Kuwait and former Florida professor who pleaded guilty and was convicted in federal court of conspiring with the Palestine Islamic Jihad, which has supported suicide bombers in Israel. Chughatta's foundation has donated over $20,000 to CAIR. Chughatta did not return requests for comment on this story.

Al Falah is suing Bridgewater township, Norgalis, the mayor, every member of the town council, and the planning board. The lawsuit names 10 counts under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). In the filing, defense lawyers allege the township has "deprived Plantiffs of their right of free exercise of religion, discriminating against them on the basis of religion." They also claim $200,000 has been spent planning for the Al Falah mosque. Court documents show Al Falah is also supported by the mega law firm Arnold & Porter, the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, and the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund.

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