Skip to comments.Local imam supported, suspected
Posted on 02/22/2003 5:20:47 PM PST by sarcasm
As an accusing spotlight again fell on Cleveland's top Muslim cleric, area Muslims rallied to the side of Imam Fawaz Damra yesterday.
Jewish leaders, meanwhile, said recent federal indictments confirmed their suspicions that the leader of Ohio's largest mosque is not a peacemaker.
Damra, the imam, or spiritual leader, of the Islamic Center of Cleveland, was linked Thursday to a pro-statehood Palestinian group accused of sowing terrorism.
He declined to comment yesterday, but many of his faithful expressed anxiety and support. The Palestinian-born Damra is especially popular among Cleveland's Palestinians, who make up the fastest-growing segment of the region's Arab-American community.
"I'm pretty sure he's clean. I'm pretty sure he's done nothing wrong," said Hani Aziz, a trustee of the Beit Hanina Social Club, which represents hundreds of Palestinians from the West Bank town. "He's well-liked, and I hope to God he's not harmed in any way, because he means a lot to the Arab and the Muslim community in Cleveland."
Michael Bennett, a spokesman for the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said the city's organized Jewish community has had no contact with Damra since reports of extremist links surfaced 15 months ago.
"From our standpoint, nothing really changed," he said. "We've seen no indication that he's taken a stand against terrorism or terror groups."
A federal indictment handed up Thursday accuses a University of South Florida engineering professor, Sami Amin Al-Arian, and seven other men of helping a group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad launder money and commit murders.
The 50-count indictment refers to a fund-raising speech that Al-Arian made in Cleveland on April 7, 1991. A videotape of the event, later obtained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, showed Damra introducing Al-Arian and encouraging the killing of Jews, whom he referred to as "the sons of monkeys and pigs."
The INS released the tape a little over a year ago in a deportation case. After it aired on Cleveland television stations in September 2001, Damra apologized to the Jewish community and described his actions as a youthful indiscretion.
He has never been charged with a crime and during the 1990s emerged as an ecumenical leader, frequently inviting Jewish and Catholic leaders into his mosque.
But many local religious and civic leaders cut off contact with Damra after the tape aired.
John Hexter, director of the Cleveland chapter of the American Jewish Committee, said yesterday that it is now up to the Muslim community to choose a moderate leader with whom Jews can work in pursuit of mutual understanding.
Area Muslims said they have their man.
Visitors to the Grand Mosque yesterday afternoon were greeted with a message board proclaiming "Assalam Alaikum: Peace Be With You." A jammed parking lot forced some late-arriving worshipers to create their own spaces. Several hundred people attended the afternoon prayers.
Afterward, Damra declined to comment on the recent indictments.
"At this time, no," he said, telling a visitor, "Keep me in your prayers."
Damra recently led a group of 18 from Northeast Ohio on a hajj, a special pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia that all Muslims are asked to make at least once in their lives.
In his remarks at the prayer service, the imam talked about the pilgrimage and how it made him appreciate the need for humility before Allah and filled him with gratitude for even the basics of life.
Several people came up to him after the service to offer effusive greetings.
Zahid Siddiqi, general secretary of the mosque, said he accompanied Damra on the hajj, and "all he talked about was salvation."
Siddiqi and other members said they have never heard Damra speak in support of terrorist groups.
Aziz said Damra's taped statements, while unfortunate, did not surprise local Palestinians.
"Back then, in 1991, he in a way spoke the truth," Aziz said. "Israel is an occupier, and the Palestinian land needs to be liberated. As far as most Palestinians are concerned, he didn't do anything wrong or say anything wrong."
I'd bet most of the Pallies, at least those here legally, are diversity lottery winners just like the guy who gunned down people at LAX on the 4th of July before an El Al security guard got him.
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