Plans by Saudi Arabia to turn a sod farm into an Islamic school's campus have this quiet, fast-growing community buzzing with improbable rumors - and county officials facing political and personal threats.
One couple is afraid that bullets fired by terrorists from within the compound would kill local children. A woman is positive the students will grow into terrorists. An unsigned flier warns that Middle Eastern strangers will roam the streets while real Virginians are away at work.Beyond the rumors, the furor over the proposed $75 million, 3,500-student school has split Ashburn Village, a mostly white professional bedroom community 35 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Supporters say religious freedom should be respected. Opponents contend the school will be controlled by an "oppressive foreign government."
The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors votes Wednesday on whether to allow construction.
"We want to be good neighbors, and the school is going to be beneficial to the local community," said Nail al-Jubeir, spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
"People don't understand. They haven't met a lot of Muslims in their life. It's really sad," said Kathryn Kern-Levine, who has urged Ashburn residents to display a Muslim star and crescent in their windows to welcome the school.
But Sandra Elam, leader of the opposition group Concerned About Loudoun's Future, insists opposition is not about religion but is in essence a boycott of the Saudi government. "I'd feel the same way if it were the communist Chinese government coming in here and saying we want to put in an atheist facility to train everyone to be an atheist," she said.
The controversy began last fall when plans were announced to build the Islamic Saudi Academy. The school's Saudi backers settled on Loudoun County after scrapping plans for a campus in Poolesville, Md., which met heavy resistance in part because of opposition to growth and zoning. The ensuing debate led to charges of bigotry and cultural intolerance as well.
The Virginia announcement triggered a flurry of complaints, letters to the editor of the local newspaper, sermons, rumors and a deluge of letters to the county's planning department.
"This has been one of the nastiest issues we have ever dealt with," said Joan Rokus, a county supervisor. "There have been threats of life and to re-election."
In December, an anonymous flier appeared on doorsteps, warning residents that the school would bring in "foreigners from Muslim Terrorist Countries" and that "thousands of Middle Eastern strangers (will roam) our streets while we work."
William and Annette Groves, who oppose the "Saudi Arabian invasion," wrote to county officials that they didn't want to be "exposed to the possible terrorism danger of having a Muslim and Saudi target in our backyards. . . . Bullets fired by terrorists from within the Saudi training center could reach and kill Loudoun children."
The Rev. James Ahlemann, who opposes the school and has addressed the issue in his sermons, said he is concerned about who is building and paying for the school.
"Saudi Arabia persecutes and imprisons and kills Christians, Jews and people of other faiths, and I don't think that a country that is doing that ought to have favored status and have the right to build here in the United States," Ahlemann said.
"It's a sanctity-of-life issue for me, just like abortion, because Saudi Arabia is killing people for their faith," he said.
His words have had an impact in Ashburn Village.
Kern-Levine, the school supporter, said she attended an Ahlemann sermon. Afterward, she said, three of the pastor's parishioners came to her and "started trying to tell me that the Koran (Islam's holy book) is an evil book. . . . It was just ugly."
A recent State Department report on human rights in Saudi Arabia lists several abuses, including limits on the freedom of speech and the press. But it said it had no reports of government action against private non-Mulsim religious services last year and made no mention of indiscriminate killing of non-Muslims.
A growing Muslim community in the Washington area, estimated at 200,000, has turned increasingly in recent years to private Islamic schools to educate their children. About 1,300 attend the existing Saudi school, in nearby Fairfax County, with almost 1,000 on a waiting list.
Under the Loudoun County proposal, the 1 million-square-foot school complex would resemble a small college campus. The main building would have a dome, a minaret and separate classes for boys and girls after grade 5. Students are expected to pay a fee of $900 a year.
Non-Muslims who enroll will be required to attend classes on the Arabic language and Islamic studies but will be exempted from daily noon prayers.
Anthony Nozzoli, the school's project manager, said that in response to local sentiment, the school has decided to do away with arched windows, which some fear would clash with the local architecture; a pop-up security barrier; and an 800-student dormitory. Students will commute in buses.
He said the school also will contribute generously to local fire and rescue squads, accept at least 200 local students to decrease the burden on area schools and build athletic facilities for the community.