By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Nearly 3,000 people gathered on the west lawn of the Capitol on Friday for a mass Muslim prayer service that was part religion and part pep rally for the beleaguered U.S. Muslim community.
As faint shouts of "Repent!" from Christian protesters floated across the gathering, dozens of long rows of men in robes and white knit caps and women in head coverings prostrated themselves to God, gave praise and listened to sermons as part of the congregational prayer that occurs about noon Fridays.
"Stop being so scared!" thundered Imam Abdul Malik of New York. "You ain't done nothing wrong. Just do the work of Allah, and believe."
The service comes as the Muslim community has been rocked by verbal attacks from conservative Christians that have grown stronger since the election of President Obama and by the recent arrests in a terrorism investigation involving several Muslim men, including an imam.
"We wanted to bring people out to show you don't need to fear America," said Imam Ali Jaaber of Dar-ul-Islam mosque in Elizabeth N.J., the service's main organizer. At the same time, he said, he wanted to remind non-Muslims that "we are decent Muslims. We work; we pay taxes. We are Muslims who truly love this country."
Across the street from the service, Christian protesters gathered with banners, crosses and anti-Islamic messages. One group, which stood next to a 10-foot-tall wooden cross and two giant wooden tablets depicting the Ten Commandments, was led by the Rev. Flip Benham of Concord, N.C.
"I would suggest you convert to Christ!" Benham shouted over a megaphone. Islam "forces its dogma down your throat." A few Christian protesters gathered at the rear of the Muslim crowd, holding Bibles and praying.
At one point, organizers asked them to tone it down.
"We would never come to a prayer meeting that you have to make a disturbance," Hamad Chebli, imam of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, said from the lectern. "Please show us some respect. This is a sacred moment. Just as your Sunday is sacred, our Friday is sacred."
The noise from protesters faded somewhat during the final portion of the service, which lasted nearly two hours.
Organizers said this month that they hoped to draw about 50,000 people from mosques across the country for the gathering, billed as a day of unity for the nation's Muslims. But it failed to attract the support of national Islamic organizations and drew only a fraction of that number. Some people were frightened off by the conservative Christian attacks, said Hassen Abdellah, president of Dar-ul-Islam.
Nonetheless, organizers said they were happy with the turnout.
Abdellah had become the focus of criticism in recent days because he was part of the legal team that represented one of the men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Kia Campbell, a homemaker from Durham, N.C., who came with several members of her family, said they were concerned about their safety.
"It wasn't going to keep us from coming," she said. "But it wasn't that we didn't feel cautious."
Takoma Park engineer Mohammed-Amin AbaBiya said he was happy to be at a "historical" event.
"This shows that America is one, that religion is one," he said, beaming, after the gathering ended and people began to stream off the lawn. "It shows solidarity and brotherhood. In the future, we are going to come more often, I hope."