LONDON (Reuters) - A media-shy Islamic movement that wants to build a 12,000-capacity "mega mosque" in east London will launch a campaign next week to try to overcome heated opposition to its plan.
Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary group founded in India in the 1920s, bought the site nearly 12 years ago, but has struggled to overcome strong local resistance to building what would be Britain's biggest site of worship.
Critics accuse it of a separatist agenda and seeking world domination through Islam. An "anti mega-mosque" Internet petition sent to the Web site of Prime Minister Gordon Brown last year attracted more than 275,000 signatures, but also drew accusations of being racist and "Islamophobic".
Having previously avoided almost all communication with the press or public, Jamaat, which counts around 80 million members worldwide, has now decided to adopt a more open approach.
In a 10-page booklet to be distributed among the local community, it is inviting people to come and view the site -- close to where the 2012 Olympic Games will be staged -- and understand more about its ambitions.
"We think Londoners as a whole will welcome this mosque -- that's our aim," the booklet says. "We want to ensure local people will benefit as well, and we need your active participation to help us."
Jamaat plans open days for visitors on March 15-16 and will display designs for the mosque at another event in the summer.
Funds for the construction, tentatively called Abbey Mills Mosque, will be raised among London's million-strong Muslim community, the group says. And while it will be capable of holding 12,000 people, most of the time it will be less full.
The building is being designed by a leading firm of architects, and will incorporate a conference centre and a school, making it part of the community, the group says.
Jamaat's new approach comes at a time when relations between parts of British society and its Muslim community are strained. Four young British Muslims killed 52 people in suicide bombings in London in 2005, and militant Islamists inspired by al Qaeda have been convicted of a string of other plots since then.
One of Jamaat's chief critics, councillor Alan Craig, is to run as a candidate for mayor of London in May, giving him a platform from which to criticise the project.
Craig, who is running for a Christian party and calls himself the "Christian choice", has accused Jamaat of being a "separatist Islamic sect" and says the mosque's construction must be stopped to preserve London's "openness and diversity."
A Web site, www.megamosquenothanks.com, is also running a sometimes vitriolic campaign to try to stop Jamaat's plans, accusing the group of having broader, political ambitions.
"The Jamaat teaches world domination through Islam; it does not recognise the nation state; and teaches doctrines such as the second-class status of women and the sinfulness of interfaith dialogue," the site alleges. When the anti-mosque petition was running last year, some signatures appended to it had to be removed because of racist content.
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