Members of the town’s Muslim community are relegated to praying alone, traveling to mosques in other Triangle cities or meeting at select hours in the rooms of a local church or the Student Union.
But not for long.
The Chapel Hill Islamic Society hopes to open Chapel Hill’s first mosque in the next few weeks, secretary Sohail Khan said.
“Chapel Hill has been known to welcome different faiths,” Khan said. “I think the Muslim community, as such, has been kind of missing. The closest place is in Durham. Some folks go as far as Raleigh.”
Omar Rezk, an Egyptian junior majoring in nutrition in the UNC School of Public Health, grew up in Orange County.
He said he has attended a mosque in Durham since he was a kid, though others in the area may not have the same opportunity.
“There are three mosques in Durham, which are accessible to me because I have a car,” Rezk said.
“I know for some students on campus who don’t have cars, that does affect them to a certain degree.”
When CHIS was founded in 2000, Khan said its members initially met in each other’s homes. As the society grew, it transitioned into a rented space in United Church of Chapel Hill, where meetings are held every other Saturday from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The society — one of two Muslim groups that meet in the church — has used the space for at least 10 years, said United’s pastor Richard Edens.
“It’s not so strange,” Edens said of Islamic groups gathering in a Christian church. “I don’t think any of us have an exclusive hold on God. They gather just as other communities of faith gather — to nurture, to pray, to feast, to celebrate holidays together.”
Students have access to the UNC Muslim Students’ Association’s prayer room from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day the Union is open. MSA also holds jumu’ah, the biggest regular congregation for Muslims, on Fridays for two hours.
Khan said he doesn’t believe either space adequately serves the town’s Muslim community, and representatives from UNC’s MSA agreed in a statement.
Khan said CHIS began creating a new place of worship in late 2010 by buying a four-bedroom home on nearly an acre of land at 103 Stateside Drive.
The Chapel Hill Planning Commission approved the property, which is just off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, for use as a mosque in June 2014. Since it was initially a residential home, a host of changes had to be made, and just identifying those changes cost CHIS more than $3,500.
The planning commission required CHIS to replace the exterior lighting, make the building and bathrooms wheelchair accessible and create nine parking spaces for vehicles and at least eight for bicycles.
“It’s a long, drawn-out process,” Khan said. “The fact that we got our primary approval in June of 2014 didn’t allow us to start work immediately. It meant a host of other, smaller approvals until we finally got our construction permit a year later.”
Khan said a construction permit was issued June 17. Since then, Khan said contractors have knocked down the interior walls to create a prayer space and worked to meet the Planning Commission’s requirements.
“All those changes obviously take time and money,” Khan said. “We’re a small group. Money is always a challenge.”
Khan said the society charges their roughly 60 members a yearly membership fee of $10, but the rest of the project’s estimated $150,000 price tag came from donations.
Rezk said the relative smallness of Chapel Hill’s Muslim community compared to those in Durham and Raleigh has a noticeable effect on attracting donors.
“I think the reason it took so long is because of the size of the community in Chapel Hill. There’s not many people to back the effort,” Rezk said. “Donations come in constantly in Durham. They just opened a new mosque.”
David Owens, a professor in the UNC School of Government, said, “Chapel Hill processing times are almost always substantially longer than other jurisdictions.”
Owens said he didn’t suspect the lengthiness of the process was related to this particular applicant.
Khan said construction should be completed by the beginning of November, after which the town will inspect the property and grant an occupancy permit.
Wyatt McGhee, who works as a planner in eastern North Carolina, said this will likely be the quickest step in the process — estimating only about a week of waiting.
Khan said when the space finally opens, the society will hold jumu’ah each Friday and open the space for prayer at five designated times each day. According to its application submitted to the planning board, CHIS expects no more than 36 worshippers at a given time.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said he was unaware a mosque was coming to Chapel Hill, but he is excited nonetheless.
Kleinschmidt said he meets regularly with members of the town’s Muslim community since Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha were fatally shot in February.
“One of things we want to make sure is true is that those crimes are addressed and the community understands they’re embraced,” he said.
“It pleases me to know that people from all different backgrounds from around the world can find a home in Chapel Hill.”