A plan to establish a national headquarters in Northern Virginia for American members of the Druze religion, an off-shoot of the Moslem religion Islam, has upset residents in a nearby development who fear the group is affiliated with a Lebanese military organization.
"My only concern is that somebody would try to bomb the place," said neighbor Glenn Kerr. "That would not be totally unheard of, given what's going on in Lebanon. Nobody wants their neighborhood blown up."
Representatives of the American Druze Society have asked Fairfax County zoning officials for a special permit to operate a "place of worship" on Braddock Road, off Little River Turnpike (Rte. 236) in Annandale.
Ramez A. Saab, chairman of the board of trustees for the proposed religious center, said the group wants to designate the one-acre site as the religion's spiritual and cultural center. Saab said the organization bought the land last month for $180,000 and plans to remodel the existing house to include a library, prayer rooms, a conference center and administrative offices.
Saab said there are 60 members in the society's local chapter and about 150 Druze families in the Washington area.
Residents in the adjoining Braddock Place town house subdivision fear the group might be affiliated with the Lebanese Druze militia, a warring religious faction that now controls a section of Beirut.
"I really don't know that much about them, but just the word 'Druze' at this time is enough to make anyone have second thoughts," said Faye D. Moran, who lives next door to the proposed headquarters. "Anything with Lebanese . . . it's awfully hard to separate politics and religion in that part of the nation."
But Saab said the only similarities between American and Lebanese Druze are their spiritual and cultural beliefs. He emphatically denies any other links to his Middle Eastern counterparts.
"The Druze in Lebanon are a bunch of terrorists; we are good citizens," said the Beirut native in a telephone interview last week. "Fighting a war doesn't necessarily mix with faith. The people in Lebanon are fighting a war of existence . . . the zoning request has nothing to do with fighting, it has something to do with faith."
Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III (R-Mason) said the society's request "will be judged on its land-use merits and not on the fact the neighbors don't like the church. You cannot deny an application on the fact people don't like the religion."
If zoning officials deny the organization's special permit request, the society can appeal the decision to the Fairfax County Circuit Court within 30 days.
Cheryl P. Hamilton, zoning appeals staff coordinator, said neighbors living adjacent to the proposed headquarters have been calling her with questions about the Druze religion.
"I told them I don't know how Druze practice their faith . . . it's not of a concern to the Board of Zoning Appeals ." Hamilton said. "It doesn't matter what they do inside the church as long as it's not creating problems to adjacent properties."
Some residents of the small development said it makes them uncomfortable to have the Druze headquarters next door because they do not know enough about the small, cohesive religious community.
"Some of the people in the neighborhood don't understand about the Druze culture and religion and that's why they find objection to it. The neighbors think someone will bomb their building because they might be tied to the Druze militia in Lebanon," said Sarah Mullins, whose husband, Charles, called the Lebanon desk at the State Department after he heard about the permit request.
"The man at the Lebanon desk said the Druze society was to preserve Druze life," said Charles Mullins. "It sounds like the American Druze Society is a pretty straightforward organization. We all need to look into it a little bit more."
An official at the State Department said the Druze faith originated between the 10th and 11th centuries.
The official said the majority of the Middle East Druze population lives in the mountains surrounding Israel, Lebanon and Syria and lead cloistered, disciplined lives.
Saab, 68, who immigrated to the United States when he was 19 years old, owned a beach resort six miles south of Beirut until 1982. Now, he said, some of the "fighting people have taken it over."
"The Druze don't build churches or mosques, we have only prayer rooms . . . . where we can make communion with God and go home," said Saab.
A public hearing on the proposed religious center is scheduled for July 16 at 8 p.m. in the board room of the Massey Building in Fairfax City.