Dena Al-Atassi has a strong attachment to the Masjid Al-Rahman, the mosque on Goldenrod Road her family helped establish in the 1980s.
But this year she worshipped at home during the holy month of Ramadan, a personal protest against a decision by the Islamic Society of Central Florida to charge a $5 parking fee at that mosque and three others in Central Florida.
"It's a very sensitive issue in our faith when you mix money with worship," said Al-Atassi, 26. "The idea that you come to a place of worship and they are demanding money to enter rubs people the wrong way."
The parking fee — viewed by many as "pay to pray" — has sparked outrage within the Muslim community. It violates the Islamic belief that money for religious purposes is given voluntarily.
"Religion is free; God's place is free," Al-Atassi said. "It's not fair to ask people for an entrance fee."
The parking fee was started July 1, a month before Ramadan, in response to parking problems and traffic congestion at mosques on Goldenrod, Rouse Road and Old Winter Garden Road, as well as in Sanford. Six other mosques under the Islamic Society do not charge for parking.
None of the other Central Florida mosques charges for parking. Neither do churches and synagogues — several of which also face parking and traffic-congestion problems.
Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society, contends that the controversy over the parking fee is just a misunderstanding — no one is obligated to pay to park. Muslims who say they can't afford the fee or don't want to pay it can still park at the mosques, he said.
"They have it totally wrong. We have explained it over and over that this is not pay to pray," Musri said. "It's a recommended donation, and if someone says, 'I'm not going to pay,' that's fine. We say, 'Welcome, come on in.' "
But the Islamic Society's website doesn't reflect that the fee is voluntary and optional: "Effective July 1, 2011, a $5 parking fee will be assessed per vehicle during the Friday Khutbah service between the hours of 12 noon and 4 pm, and other special events."
Muslims could avoid paying the parking fee by joining the Islamic Society with a donation of $30 or more a month and receive a parking decal as a membership perk — which is also optional, Musri said. The money goes toward Islamic Society expenses and charities, Musri said.
"To be part of the community, we recommended you give a dollar a day. They get a lot of free services from the Islamic Society: counseling, classes, a lot of programs," he said.
But the website makes it look as if the cost of the decal is $30 or more: "Get your ISCF Parking Decal today! ... Contribute at least $30.00 per month to the Sadaqa Jariyah Fund by selecting the recurring payment. Receive your parking decal in the mail."
The website also says, "If you choose not to create your free online account and not to participate in the monthly SJ fund, your vehicle will be assessed a $5.00 non-tax-deductible parking fee at the gate during Friday Service (Khutbah) for a daily temporary parking permit."
The parking fee pays for off-duty officers who direct traffic and provide security, Musri said. The need for paid security officers resulted from threats and protests by anti-Muslim groups, he said.
Opposition to the parking fee is a main topic on a Facebook site dedicated to complaints about how the Islamic Society operates.
"I was away for summer vacation and was shocked when I went to the Goldenrod Masjid and was asked to pay for parking!" wrote Maan Nassereddeen. "If I didn't have cash on me I would have been turned away from Friday's prayer! Seriously?"
The Jaffaria Islamic Center of Florida in Kissimmee does not charge for parking but shares some of the same concerns about traffic congestion and safety as the Islamic Society.
"We have the same security concerns, but policemen in patrol cars cost money," said Ali Abbass, a board member. "We haven't taken action partly because we don't have the funds for it."
But if it required hiring off-duty officers to solve those problems, Abbass said his center would look for other ways to pay the cost than charging for parking because members would likely object.
Abbass said the Islamic Society is addressing a legitimate issue but probably handled it the wrong way.
"I understand it," Abbass said, "but I don't agree with it."
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