- Associated Press - Sunday, March 5, 2017

BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) - Jeff Krueger was raised as a Christian and had never met a Muslim before his conversion about five years ago.

He started reading the Quran, Islam’s holy book, and, “It just made more sense to me,” he said.

Krueger, a Kingston resident, had found his faith. With no mosque in Kitsap County, he traveled to Seattle, the closest place to worship. Failing that, “We’d just pray at someone’s house,” he said. A downloaded app could point the way to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

Muslims in Kitsap County faced the same predicament as Krueger until this past June. Following nearly ten years of fundraising, the Islamic Center of Kitsap County opened in its first permanent home inside a former Kitsap Bank.

The congregation, while small, includes business owners, restaurant cooks and custodians. Men worship downstairs; the women upstairs. The mosque provides a home for about 15 worshipping families, but with a permanent home the congregation expects to grow.

“Everyone is welcome here,” said Ahmed Aammou, a Moroccan-born American who is currently leading prayers while the congregation seeks an imam, or leader.

Some, like Krueger, converted later in life; others have always followed Islam. There are immigrants, including several families from Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. Others, like Le’Roy Smith, identify as “American Muslim.” Inside the center, there’s no distinction.

“It’s a close-knit group,” said Smith, who commuted to Tacoma before the Bremerton center opened. “It’s pretty much a family.”

Smith had heard of some Muslims in Bremerton who met at a home on National Avenue in Navy Yard City. When he attended for the first time, though, he couldn’t understand the prayers - everything was in Arabic.

“We weren’t used to their customs and they weren’t used to ours,” Smith said.

In a bid to be inclusive, organizers began to give khutbahs, or sermons, in English, which Smith appreciated. Friendships followed, and the budding congregation renewed its focus toward securing a permanent home.

It was difficult to find a location for the permanent home. But with the closure of the Kitsap Bank branch on Marine Drive, the congregation found its spot. Members raised more than $21,000 on a GoFundMe page. The building sold for $245,000 in August 2015, according to the Kitsap County Assessor’s Office.

“Some of the families here, they’ve been saving their whole lives,” said Krueger, who moved to Bremerton after the establishment of the mosque.

Devout Muslims pray five times a day. To be able to do so in their own “masjid,” or mosque, has been “amazing,” said Tawnie Smith, Le’Roy Smith’s wife. She recalled meeting in basements, garages and others’ houses in the years they waited for their permanent home.

“The garage would be so cold in the winter,” she recalled of one such location. “We didn’t care - at least we were all together.”

The center opened officially in June - in time for Ramadan, or a month of fasting from dawn to dusk. Ramadan marks the first revealing of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, to the Prophet Mohammed.

Remodeling on a shoestring budget has taken time. Contractors were happy to take the former bank safe if they could keep the proceeds. An ornate Turkish rug was donated that was laid to face Mecca.

Congregants acknowledge these are uncertain times. An immigration order proposed by the President Donald Trump administration would temporarily bar travel from Iraq, which is the birthplace of a handful of the families.

The building’s closest neighbor, the Bremerton United Methodist Church, has supported the center from the start, said the Rev. Marta Schellberg.

“It’s been a wonderful friendship that continues to blossom,” said Schellberg, who noted the congregations share parking lots and often invite each other’s members to events.

“They are wonderful neighbors,” she said. “We will be celebrating some of their festivals, and they’re celebrating some of ours.”

Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent said the mosque enriches “the most diverse city in the county.” She’s hopeful that it’s “accepted and embraced.”

“We would be remiss if we did not have a place for them to worship,” said Lent, who passes the center each day on her commute to her office.

Other than of a few pairs of shoes disappearing outside the location, congregants say their opening has been smooth. Now, they just want more to join.

“You don’t need an ID card,” said Islam Mohammed, a Kurdish immigrant from Iraq who has American citizenship and is the secretary for the center.

“You just say it in your heart,” Krueger added.

___

Information from: Kitsap Sun, https://www.kitsapsun.com/


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