Islamic center in Maryland keeps ties to Iran

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A Potomac, Md., Islamic center maintains links to Iran despite its claims that it is independent of a foundation that is being sued by the U.S. government on charges of funneling money to the Islamic republic.

Ali Mohammadi, the current manager of the Islamic Education Center (IEC) of Maryland, told The Washington Times that the center’s only relationship to the Alavi Foundation is that of tenant to landlord. He quoted a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office as saying that forfeiture proceedings initiated earlier this month against the foundation - which also owns property in New York and other states - would not affect tenants of the foundation.

However, Mr. Mohammadi has served as the opening speaker for meetings between the Iranian-American community and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he comes to the U.N. General Assembly each September.

An Iranian-American who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ahmad, said the center is generally perceived as being sympathetic to the Islamic regime. He noted that Iran’s interest section, which is in a small office in upper Georgetown, held a party at the Potomac center celebrating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The interest section represents the Iranian government in the absence of formal diplomatic ties between Washington and Tehran.

On Nov. 12, federal prosecutors in New York filed a civil suit seeking forfeiture of the Alavi Foundation’s interests in a Manhattan skyscraper and other properties in New York, Maryland, Virginia, Texas and California.

U.S. officials say the foundation is a front for the Iranian government and that rental income goes to Iran’s Bank Melli, which is under U.S. sanctions for suspected links to Iran’s nuclear program.

The Iranian mission to the U.N. declined to comment on the lawsuit.

However, Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former adviser to Iranian nuclear negotiators, said the court action goes beyond U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran, undercuts legitimate charitable work and contradicts Obama administration efforts to engage the Islamic republic.

“Paying lip service to U.N. resolutions while showing a blatant disregard for the specific content of their scope and interplay of prohibited and allowed activities is, indeed, a hallmark of the U.S. action against the Alavi Foundation, whose constitutionally protected property rights as a legitimate charity organization with 30 years of charitable history, including generous grants to several Ivy League universities including Harvard University, are now imperiled, by a patently politically motivated civil suit that began in December 2008, during a vacuum of Washington leadership-in-transition,” Mr. Afrasiabi said.

The Islamic Education Center in Potomac, according to its Web site, was established in 1998 as a nonprofit institution whose mission is “to promote Islam through culture and belief.”

It holds classes and educational and cultural meetings and hosts a Muslim Community School that serves students in kindergarten through high school.

The Web site adds that a center by the same name was first established in 1981 and was run “directly by the Alavi Foundation” before the nonprofit was set up. The foundation took over properties previously owned by the Pahlavi Foundation after the 1979 Islamic revolution deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Recent sermons at the IEC have been conducted by Sheik Abdul Jalil Issa, a Shi’ite scholar from Africa who studied in the Iranian Shi’ite theological center of Qom.

Sheik Issa has been filling in for the center’s regular imam, Ahmad Bahraini, who is said to be in Tehran for family reasons.

Mr. Bahraini has sought to clarify the center’s status by hiring specialists on the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. tax law.

One of his predecessors, Hojatolislam Hejazi, had put a cloud over the center by reportedly disregarding U.S. tax rules. He was arrested at Washington Dulles International Airport in 2005while leaving the United States for Iran and carrying almost $100,000 in cash, said to have come from religious taxes paid by Shi’ite Muslims in the United States. Under Shi’ite Islam, believers are supposed to contribute a fifth of their yearly incomes to charity.

Since Mr. Bahraini took over in 2006, the center has posted revenues and expenses on its Web site to provide transparency to the IRS and community members.

Officials at the IEC told The Washington Times that the IEC board of trustees has sought to privatize the center to avoid controversy over links to Iran. However, the center has had trouble attracting more capital, and a plan to develop a shopping center is on hold.

Some members of the community expressed concern about the federal lawsuit.

An Iranian-American, who also asked to be identified only by her first name, Nadereh, because of fears of retribution, said the center should be turned over to “a council of Muslims” who come to a mosque to “practice religion, not a political agenda.”

Another Iranian-American who gave her first name, Tahereh, and worships at the center said, “Muslims are a part of this society, many of them doctors, journalists, business people, successful engineers and from different walks of life, come and pray, practice their Islam here and at this place. The seizure of this place is not a good solution.”

Federal prosecutors say the Alavi Foundation has largely been directed by Iran’s ambassadors to the United Nations.

The foundation has denied that it raises money for the Iranian government and is challenging the lawsuit.

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