POCATELLO A variance request hearing that was supposed to be focused on parking and public safety concerns surrounding the placement of an Islamic Center turned into testimony about religious tolerance and fear of Islam Thursday night.
Originally scheduled for a small meeting room in Pocatello City Hall, the hearing was moved to the City Council Chamber to accommodate more than 100 people most of them Muslims.
Hearing officer Jim Mullen tried to limit input to planning and zoning issues, but citizen comments soon expanded at times resembling a spirited religious debate.
A doctor from Portneuf Medical Center and a native of Somalia, Jamal Mustafa strayed from zoning concerns in his opening remarks in favor of the Islamic Center and talked about the growing needs of Muslim students at Idaho State University.
For the past 10 years ISU has quadrupled its Muslim student population, Mustafa said, adding the new center would expand the chance for students to practice their faith and pray.
This is for the benefit of Pocatello, Mustafa said.
Opponents to the variance said the mosque would hurt Pocatello and put its residents in danger.
The Rev. Jim Jones of the Blazing Grace Church in Pocatello brought a copy of the Koran to the lectern. He said Islam faith preaches intolerance of others and promotes the killing of Christians and Jews.
I get very fearful because I live close to this place, he said about the proposed Islamic Center.
Several local pastors and the Portneuf Valley Interfaith Fellowship lent their support to the application. Janie Gephardt of Pocatellos first church, First Congregational Church of Christ, said when her church started in the 1800s, it didnt have to ask for permission.
Its important for us to support one another, she said.
There are certainly a lot of things that could go into that space that would be less beneficial to the neighborhood than a religious center, said pastor of the Pocatello Unitarian Church, Duffy Peet.
Opponents took aim at the Muslim faith itself instead of any zoning issues related to the fact the proposed mosque is in a commercial area that requires a variance.
Rick Frasure said because of the threats of Islamic war and jihad, the Islamic Center in Pocatello posed a grave danger.
The more inroads into this city, the more dangerous it becomes, Frasure said.
Other opponents talked about their fear of Islamic violence and the faith of people in the Middle East.
One woman said she would sell her house and move if the variance was approved.
Hearing officer Mullen said he would make a decision on the variance request by Feb. 18. Any appeal of that decision would have to be made within 10 days and would go before the City Council.