Friday prayer services at the Prince George's Muslim Association Community Center in Lanham have always been followed by a series of cheerful public announcements -- the start of a new Arabic class, an upcoming feast to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan, another sale at a local halal grocery store.
But recently, the list is just as likely to include a more serious type of event -- the latest seminar on how to stand up for your rights as a Muslim in America.
There have been many to choose from. Faced with several new immigration and security laws that the government maintains are needed to prevent terrorism but that critics charge unfairly target thousands of innocent Muslims, Arab and South Asian residents, mosques and community groups across Prince George's County are increasingly expanding their mission.
Once, they focused on improving members' spiritual or social lives, but now they also offer immigration information, legal referrals and pep talks.
"A lot of families in our community are feeling very apprehensive . . . and immigration lawyers tell us it's only going to get worse," said Minhaj Hasan, editor of Muslim Link, a monthly newsletter published by the Dar-us-Salaam mosque in College Park.
About 10,000 copies are printed for distribution across the Washington region, and the publication has been quick to adapt. Founded four years ago, it originally featured meditations on "the basics of Islam, rules and regulations, things like that," he said.
Now there are also articles on civil rights and editorials exhorting readers not to abandon their faith in the face of discrimination or to shop at Muslim-owned businesses that lost non-Muslim customers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The most recent issue also has a "questions and answers" column with an immigration lawyer. The first in what Hasan said will be a series, it deals with one of the most controversial federal security initiatives -- a program to register, fingerprint and question thousands of male visitors from 25 countries considered sources of terrorism.
The "special registration" effort has caused widespread panic and confusion because more than 1,600 of the more than 41,000 men nationwide who have signed up were detained for visa violations, and many had applications pending for permanent residency. Large numbers of those arrested spent a night or more in jail.
Although nearly all have been released, they and about 3,800 who were not detained face deportation proceedings. The government has refused to release statistics on the number of registrants detained in the Washington area.
The deadline for most nationals who must register under the program has passed. However those from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have until tomorrow, and those from Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Kuwait have until April 25.
Because the program covers countries with large non-Muslim populations, even a few local churches have mobilized to help immigrant parishioners navigate legal questions it entails.
That's the case at St. John the Baptist, a Catholic church on New Hampshire Avenue just across the Prince George's County border with Montgomery County in Silver Spring. A few weeks ago, church officials organized an informational meeting on special registration between about 50 Indonesian parishioners and David Cleveland, an attorney with Catholic Charities who speaks their language.
"People asked a lot of questions that we didn't know the answers to," Cleveland said. "Congress has written an unclear law, the [U.S.] attorney general has issued some unclear rules and he constantly makes amendments, so the law today may be different from the law next month."
To help people navigate that system, a South Asian group called Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center in the District has set up a hotline, staffed by law students who speak a range of South Asian languages. The group offers legal referrals to area immigrants seeking advice on special registration and has negotiated with lawyers to provide low rates for clients it refers.
The group's services are in high demand, said Deepa Iyer, who oversees the hotline. "Before special registration was announced, a lot of the people calling in had questions about divorce, or child custody issues. . . . Now we're getting people saying 'I'm undocumented, and I'm really scared to register. Should I do it?' "
Much of the legal outreach in Prince George's has been done by another regional group called South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SALT). Over successive weekends, its members have visited county butcher shops, pizza parlors and mosques that Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indonesian residents are known to frequent, passing out fliers with the hotline number.
Not everyone approached is grateful, noted Iyer, also a SALT member.
"Sometimes, people will say, 'I don't need this. This doesn't affect me because I'm a legal permanent resident.' . . . It's a defensive response,she said.
But many more express deep gratitude. "They say, 'I'm so concerned. I don't know what to do. I don't know where to turn,' " Iyer said.
Shopkeepers are also appreciative, she added, offering to post the fliers and sometimes giving free drinks to volunteers distributing them.