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‘The mosque that Saddam built’

With Saddam Hussein on trial, his donation of $500,000 to help build a mosque in Calvert County, Md., has caused unexpected problems for the tiny Muslim community.
Imam Emad Al-Banna leads worshippers in Friday prayers at the Southern Maryland Islamic Center.
Imam Emad Al-Banna leads worshippers in Friday prayers at the Southern Maryland Islamic Center.Linda Davidson / The Washington Post
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When a generous benefactor donated $500,000 to help build a teal-domed mosque amid the rolling tobacco fields of Southern Maryland, nobody paid much attention to the source of the money.

But a quarter-century and two Gulf Wars later, there is considerably more interest in the philanthropist: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Hussein's donation came at a time when he was a quiet U.S. ally, not a bitter enemy. Now, with Hussein on trial in Baghdad for crimes against humanity, it has caused unexpected problems for the tiny Muslim community in Calvert County, an overwhelmingly Christian peninsula where some view the donation as the mosque's original sin.

In recent years, vandals have smashed the building's windows and spread vicious -- and false -- rumors that its members were terrorists or agents of the Iraqi government. The attacks have slowed, and many Calvert residents have rallied behind the Mosque That Saddam Built, as the Southern Maryland Islamic Center is referred to privately by some of its neighbors. But some suspicion lingers.

Most worshipers there decline to discuss the mosque's genesis: an Old Testament-sounding tale that began with an unexpected visit from a foreigner in flowing robes, who turned out to be Hussein's uncle, and culminated with a fateful journey to a distant Middle Eastern palace.

"We don't deserve this persecution," said Emad R. Al-Banna, 67, the mosque's imam, who said he fled his native Iraq before Hussein had some of his relatives killed. "We didn't do anything wrong. We have no connection now to Saddam Hussein and no connection to Sept. 11."

Worry among the Muslim community
The particular circumstances of the Southern Maryland Islamic Center might be unique -- experts say they are unaware of other mosques in the country funded primarily by Hussein -- but the deep-rooted fear among its members underscores a more widespread concern among Muslims: They worry that their communities, on some level, still view them as terrorists.

When Al-Banna arrived in Calvert in 1971 to work as a doctor, only three Muslims lived in the county. He came because Issam Damalouji, a doctor and native Iraqi who lived in Calvert and knew Al-Banna's father, said it was an ideal place to live.

Al-Banna, who was born in Mosul, in northern Iraq, and moved to the United States in 1966, wasn't sure at first that he wanted to live in a rural enclave dominated by tobacco farmers and watermen. "I thought it was the end of the world," he said. "There was nothing here."

There weren't enough Muslims to form a proper prayer group, so Al-Banna and the others worshiped in their homes. As he began to fall in love with the county, other Muslim doctors arrived. Soon the half-dozen Muslims at Calvert Memorial Hospital requested permission to meet in the chapel and hold Friday prayers there.

Still, they longed for a building to call their own.

Then one day about 25 years ago, a tall stranger in a long Middle Eastern robe walked into Damalouji's office. The man had an ulcer and asked Damalouji to help him.

It turned out that the patient was Hussein's uncle, who visited the area after the Iraqi Embassy recommended Damalouji as a doctor. After Damalouji operated, the grateful man, whose name Al-Banna said he does not remember, arranged for him to travel to Baghdad with a delegation of Iraqi Americans scheduled to meet with Hussein.

Damalouji declined to comment on that trip, saying he didn't want to attract attention to his visit with Hussein. But Al-Banna agreed to recount the story of Damalouji's encounter with Hussein, which he has heard told many times.

"What do you need over there?" Hussein casually asked the Iraqi Americans after they had arrived.

A nun from the Midwest, who was part of the delegation, stood up. "Mr. President, we need a school for our church," she said.

When he asked how much money would be needed, the nun said the project would cost $4.5 million.

"Done," Hussein said before turning to an assistant. "Get them the money right away."

Sensing an opportunity, Damalouji decided to try his luck and settled on a $500,000 request, which Hussein agreed to donate on the spot. When Damalouji returned home, his colleagues joshed him for being outbid by a nun.

"We booed him big time," Al-Banna joked. "We said, 'You dummy, why didn't you ask him for $4 million? We could have had a nice big mosque.' "

But Al-Banna realized quickly that accepting the money from Hussein presented a troubling moral dilemma, particularly given his family's long and tortured history with the tyrant.

Conflicted feelings
Fearing for his safety, Al-Banna fled Iraq in 1963, shortly after Hussein's Baath Party began to rise to power. Al-Banna's father and brother had been jailed, and another sibling had been exiled to Egypt because of the family's opposition to Hussein's policies.

"He was just terrorizing everybody and killing everybody," Al-Banna said.

But Al-Banna, a longtime Republican in the United States, was also greatly influenced by Hussein's loose alliance with the Reagan administration at the time. "Saddam Hussein was a favorite son of America," Al-Banna said. "I thought if President Reagan likes him, he must be okay."

"I really had conflicted feelings," he said.

In the end, though, Al-Banna decided the mosque's planners could not turn down the gift. "I accepted the money because it belongs to the Iraqi people," he said. "It is not Saddam Hussein's money. He stole it."

Damalouji and a Christian Calvert resident donated six acres, directly across the street from the hospital, to build the mosque. The 7,448-square-foot building, which cost $650,000, was completed in 1986, according to property records, and opened the next year.

An official from the Iraqi Embassy snapped pictures during the opening and sent them to Hussein. But the mosque leaders decided not to create a plaque honoring his gift or to honor him in any way.

"At one of our meetings, someone said, 'What do you think about putting his name on the mosque?' " Al-Banna recalled. "Ninety-nine percent of the members said: Absolutely not."

The hexagon-shaped mosque in Prince Frederick, with a slender minaret spiraling into the sky and three arches framing its entrance, sits not far from Calvert's remaining tobacco fields along Route 4.

"When I first moved here, I used to think: Boy, does that mosque stick out like a sore thumb or what?" said the Rev. Russell McClatchey, a minister at a nearby church.

But until recently, the mosque attracted little attention. Most county residents never knew about Hussein's donation and even Ellen Boyd, director of the Calvert County Historical Society, expressed shock when she learned about the donation last month. "Are you kidding?" she said. "I never knew Saddam Hussein had anything to do with Calvert County."

Rumormongering after Sept. 11
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, though, everyone paid a lot more attention to the mosque.

Vandals broke the windows soon after the attacks, said Anwar Munshi, a mosque board member. And soon malicious gossip accused members of the mosque -- especially Al-Banna and Damalouji -- of being terrorists and spies for Iraq.

Much of the rumormongering was fueled by some individuals suspicious of the mosque's connection to Hussein, McClatchey said.

One day when the mosque leaders re-tarred its roof, causing smoke to billow up, neighbors began claiming that FBI agents had raided the building after they identified it as a terrorist cell, according to one rumor Al-Banna heard. Another time, a woman yelled about him loudly in the checkout aisle at the supermarket.

"Did you hear that Dr. Al-Banna and his family were just arrested because they are terrorists?" Al-Banna recalled the woman asking.

McClatchey, then-president of the Calvert County Christian Clergy Council, said some members of the group refused to attend a meeting shortly after Sept. 11 because he had invited Al-Banna to speak. When he organized a unity service that fall to show support for the mosque, McClatchey said fewer than 20 of the 70 or so clergy members he invited showed up.

"A number of them just didn't want to attend a meeting in the same room as a Muslim," he said.

The mosque's worshipers, now including a core grout of 20 families, also received some poignant signs of support, such as interfaith events and a bouquet of flowers placed on the front of the mosque by a patient of one of the worshipers.

Al-Banna said he strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq because of the violence that any war inevitably causes and its potential impact on his three sisters and brother, who live in Iraq.

As for Hussein's trial, Al-Banna said it is a waste of time. He said there are far more important priorities for his war-torn country -- security, education and infrastructure.

"I have very mixed feelings about this trial. It's definitely going to open some painful wounds," he said. "And more importantly, why would I want to waste my time thinking about Saddam Hussein?"