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Federal case threatens mosques, charity work

The organization that federal investigators say is a front for the Iranian government is the central source of funding for several Islamic centers and schools that likely will have to close.
Mosque Forfeiture
The Razi School in the Queens borough of New York City is among the assets seized by the federal government in a case against the Alavi Foundation, an alleged front company for the Iranian government.Stephen Chernin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The organization that federal investigators say is a front for the Iranian government has spent millions of dollars over the years on philanthropy: buying property for four U.S. mosques, funding religious schools and language classes, and translating books on Islam.

The move to seize assets held by the New York-based Alavi Foundation will cripple the charity's work and put the government in the awkward position of potentially shutting down the houses of worship, which occupy buildings and land that Alavi owns.

There are no claims of wrongdoing at the mosques. And they will stay open as prosecutors try to take hold of the hundreds of millions of dollars in Alavi money and property. The mosques were not mentioned by name, only listed by street address.

Still, the mosques and schools could be collateral damage in the case. On Friday, the government moved to cut off Alavi's direct access to its money, according to court records.

Sabukta Chowdhury, a parent at the Razi School, a K-12 school that is part of the Imam Ali Mosque in Queens, said her child would be upset if the school closed.

"The school is very good," Chowdhury said outside the building Friday. "My child very sad. They do not want to go to another school."

Closures predicted
Abdulaziz Sachedina, a University of Virginia professor and expert on Shiite Islam, predicted the four Islamic centers in New York, Maryland, Texas and California would shut down without Alavi money.

Alavi was one of the few central sources of funding for American Shiite communities, which have far fewer resources than U.S. Sunnis. Often, the Islamic day schools the centers run are among the few available.

"Muslims aren't used to membership fees," said Sachedina, who has spoken several times at the mosque in Maryland. "In Muslim countries, most services are free, provided by rich people. Here, for the first time, Muslims are required to pay donations. It's very hard to collect money from the people."

The Islamic Education Center of Potomac, Md., reported on its Web site that it already had a budget deficit of more than $60,000 as of June.

As U.S. marshals posted forfeiture notices on the buildings, mosque leaders stressed that they are just the occupants of the properties.

"We are the tenant," said Ghassan Elcheikhali, principal of the Razi School, standing before the forfeiture notice on the front door.

However, the Islamic centers and schools are deeply dependent on Alavi funding, according to tax records and the mosques' own Web sites. That makes them more vulnerable if the foundation closes.

The New York charity started the Potomac mosque in 1981 and ran it directly until 1998, when the congregation and Islamic day school incorporated independently. However, the center pays Alavi nothing for use of the property and receives other support from the organization, according to 2007 tax records.

Alavi also lists among its assets furniture, computers, fixtures and other equipment at the four Islamic centers. All could be seized if the government case prevails. A leader of the Maryland mosque said his attorneys advised him not to comment Friday.

First Amendment concerns
It is extremely rare for U.S. authorities to seize a house of worship.

Legal scholars who study religious-liberty issues say that the case could raise First Amendment concerns, but forfeiture proceedings have some built-in protections for innocent third parties.

Ahmed Shabazz, who organizes community service work at the Islamic Center of Houston, said the mosque serves about 300 families, runs a K-12 Islamic school and has a program that feeds the homeless. Congregants learned of the government action against Alavi as they gathered inside the building for prayer Thursday night.

The Houston congregation includes Iranian, Pakistani, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, who were the most rattled by the government's move, Shabazz said.

"I'm just upset that the mosques are being targeted for closure," Shabazz said. "There's guilt by association, it seems to me at this point, because of who we rent the property from."

In Queens, people arriving at the mosque for Friday prayer were troubled by the case. Some wondered whether they were targeted for their religion.

Hassan Jaber, who teaches Arabic at the U.N. and has a daughter in the ninth grade, said parents bring their children to Razi in part to preserve their Muslim values. Among the students enrolled are the children of U.N. ambassadors from Iran and other countries, Elcheikhali said.

"They don't like to have a boyfriend for their daughter. They don't like a girlfriend for their son. So this is the point. An Islamic atmosphere as protection," Jaber said.

The school celebrates diversity with an international day, he said. "If you see the flags, the most important flag in the middle is the American flag."