January 6, 2006

Religious tension grows in Boston over new mosque

By Jason Szep

BOSTON (Reuters) - It was to be the biggest mosque in the
northeastern United States, a center of worship for Boston's
70,000 Muslims and a milestone for America's Muslim community.

Instead, construction of the $24.5 million center has been
stalled by lawsuits and a deepening row between Jewish and
Muslim leaders that reflects broader suspicions facing American
Muslims after the September 11 attacks.

Jewish leaders charge that former and current officials in
the Islamic Society of Boston, which is building the 70,000-sq-
ft (6,500-square-meter) mosque, are linked to terrorist groups
and have failed to distance themselves from radical Islam and
anti-Jewish statements.

The Islamic Society denies any connection to terrorism and
considers itself victimized by a campaign to taint the mosque
with accusations of ties to radical Islamic teachings. The
society says it has repeatedly distanced itself from
anti-Jewish statements by some of its leaders.

Among Jewish concerns is whether a former Islamic Society
trustee -- outspoken Egyptian Sunni cleric Sheikh Youssef
al-Qaradawi -- praised Hamas and Hizbollah, which the U.S.
State Department regards as terrorist organizations.

"There is a great deal of anxiety," said Larry Lowenthal,
executive director of the American Jewish Committee's chapter
in Boston, whose Jewish population of about 240,000 is the
fifth largest of U.S. cities.

"The distance that I think has to be established between
these current leaders and their colleagues who have made
troubling statements ... that distance has to be clearly
distinct and established," he added.

American Muslims are watching the case closely.

"Unfortunately, I see the Boston case as indicative of a
growing trend in anti-Muslim rhetoric that has grown after
9/11," said Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director of the
Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, the
nation's largest American Muslim civil rights group.

"It has especially impacted local Muslim communities in
terms of building their mosques," he said. "High concentrations
of Muslim populations are being given a hard time for just
trying to practice their faith."

Demographers estimate there are five to six million Muslims
in the United States.


Growing rancor and the prospect of a high-profile court
battle are frightening would-be donors and choking off funding
for the mosque. Opening the red-brick building, which is now
about 70 percent complete, has been delayed indefinitely.

"There is definitely fear in the fund-raising community
about giving to Islamic organizations," said the Islamic
Society's assistant director, Salma Kazmi.

"Everyone is worried about their name appearing on a list
and whether they will get visited by the FBI," she said.
"People want us to publish our donor list but if we do that we
would never get any donations because everyone feels they'll be
subject to all kinds of harassment."

A full-page advertisement in Boston's Jewish Advocate
newspaper on Thursday accused the Islamic Society of using
litigation to stifle discussion and of failing to answer
questions raised by Jewish leaders who say July's bombings in
London sharpened their concerns over mosques and terrorism.

One separate lawsuit brought by a city resident seeks
Boston to force the Islamic Society to return the land under
the mosque to the city, charging that the Boston Redevelopment
Authority breached constitutional divisions between state and
religion by selling the site at below-market value.

In 2000, Boston sold land at a fraction of its $400,000
value in return for a commitment to develop the site into a
community center. The society says Boston has donated land to
other religious institutions in the past and that the suit also
reflects a concerted campaign against them.

"This is not the first time the city has given land to a
religious institution but we're the only one that has been
through a public hearing process," said Kazmi.