As Central Jersey counties grow, so does the Muslim community.
Yaser ElMenshawy, president of the Islamic Center of Hunterdon County, is witnessing that, even away from the population centers of the state.
Since its formation in 2005, his small congregation, based in Flemington, has grown from seven to 30 members, ElMenshawy said. Faster-growing counties, especially Middlesex, have seen greater expansion, said ElMenshawy, a former resident of Perth Amboy.
"Middlesex went from having a whole lot of farms to a whole lot of developments," he said.
"Hunterdon County is trying very hard not to become like Middlesex County. That's why we moved out here away from Middlesex, because there is more space and less congestion. But in other counties, the Muslim community may be growing even faster than the counties are growing."
A half-million Muslims now live in New Jersey, according to the state chapter of the Council for Islamic-American Relations (CAIR-NJ) in Princeton. About 200,000 are Arabic, CAIR-NJ reported, and most others are Asian.
At 6 percent, the state's Muslim population is 10 times greater than the national average indicated in a recent survey of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C.
The recent state estimates are based on a sampling of mosque membership, said Afsheen Shamsi, spokeswoman for CAIR-NJ.
In the past 20 years, paid membership in several Central Jersey mosques has increased about 500 percent, area Muslim leaders said, and is expected to continue to grow. But those figures don't reflect the entire local Muslim community, because mosques don't require membership, they said.
The growth of Islam in Central Jersey is due to Muslim migration to this diverse region, job and college opportunities, conversions, children coming of age, and general population growth, area leaders said.
"New Jersey offers competitive jobs in the pharmaceutical industry and a lot of Muslims work in that industry," Shamsi said. "And a lot of people work in New York but choose to live in New Jersey. We've had a large population of Muslims move here from New York.
"Also, New Jersey is a diverse state, so it does attract people from various ethnic backgrounds. People also want be closer to families who already live here."
Converts by marriage and other means, and grown children who stay in the area, also add to the growth of the Muslim community in Central Jersey, Shamsi said.