After the melodic chant of the Islamic Center's noon prayer service faded yesterday, center director Mohammad Abdul Rauf spoke to the worshipers about his ordeal in captivity there and of his distress that "this place that is visited by people seeking comfort and spirituality could become a place of fear and terror."
There was time during his captivity with 10 hostages in the center's office complex when Rauf said he thought "I would not come out of this building with this head over this body."
Yet there was something of the miraculous in the way Raul and more than 100 hostages of Hanafi Muslim gunmen in three Washington locations were released early yesterday morning.
The center's mosque is a place of worship for hundreds of Muslims in Washington. There was indeed "fear and terror" there. But there was also an atmosphere more serene, more suffused with religiosity than at either of the other places, the District Building and the B'nai B'rith headquarters.
And there was an additional, joyful irony, Amid the general sense of relief at Foundry Methodist Church at P and 16th Streets NW, where many of the hostages gathered after their releasse, many B'nai B'rith hostages - Jews - for their release.
Rauf explained that the three ambassadors from Islamic countries who participated in the negotiations to free the hostages were all board members of the Islamic Center who might have shield away from negotiations for fear of "interfering" had they not been thus involved.
Rauf, a gray-haired, soft-spoken man, refused to take any credit, however. he invited Jews to visit the Islamic Center and declared, "Now we are one."
Rauf was clearly the main target of the gunmen who took over the center at noon Wednesday, according to the Rev. Robert Tesdell of New York City, another hostage. Whenever the three gunmen talked - always politely - about cutting off people's heads, they always made it clear that Rauf's head would be first.
This was a thoroughly bizarre experience: the politeness of men armed to the teeth, aiming a pistol at Rauf's head, which they threatened to cut off; Rauf touching his head to the floor as he prayed to Allah: Rauf's wife, Buthayna, engaging her Muslim captors in intense debate about Islam, exploding at them at one point that she knew more about Islam "than you have hairs on your head." All the while, the blare of all-news radio in the background was describing their plight.
The center hostages (two were released early) included five Egyptians who were employees of the center, three Americans, a Bangladeshi and a Colombian. They were guarded by three men, armed with two rifles, a pistol and machetes.
"Glory to Allah" said a plaque on the wall. Another said: "People all are children of God. The most beloved of them to Him is the one who is most useful to his children."
The seven male hostages were tied hand and foot from the beginning, said the hostages, but the knots were amateurish and could be undone in less than a minute by a hostage working alone. Furthermore, the gunmen would untie anyone who asked so the person could go to the bathroom.
"They were never nasty to us and mostly they were smiling," said Tesdell. "They were cool and confident. They enjoyed being on the telephone very much and explaining about their religion and Allah."
When Rauf wanted to pray, Tesdell said, the gunmen would respectfully lower their voices and turn down the radio.
Center assistant director Abdul Rahman Osman, who teaches Arabic language and religion at the center, said, "I was surprised because one (gunman) was my student who had come to my class two times. He used to come in a long gown and a cap. He was really nice. 'You are going to do this?' I asked him. He said, 'Just relax.'"
The theological and other arguments sometimes became heated.
At one point Mr. Rauf told the gunman their demands were "ridiculous," and that they should ask for something "reasonable."
She asked for a Koran to read. It was given to her, but when she started to read one of the captors turned the light off. "He tried to irritate me. Later when they were talking about the mercy of God this and that I said, 'If you are so religious, why did you switch off the light when I was reading the Koran?'"
For his part, Rauf was convinced he was going to die. There was a pistol aimed at him during most of the 38 hours, and when food arrived twice from the outside (once from the police and once from the Hanafis), he was used as a shield by a gunman when they opened the door to get the packages.
At one point he could have escaped out a side door while his guard was in the other office, but decided not to for fear the others would be killed.
"I assured them I was not afraid of death," Rauf said. "I was glad I had a chance to repent, that I would die a martyr's death, and God would forgive me. But I was afraid for the name of this place, to be killed here by people who call themselves Muslims."
Tesdell said the situation was tense immediately after the takeover and until the gunmen consolidated their position and felt secure.
They threatened to kill a Colombian student, Jose Luis Mora, and held guns to his head. They screamed at Osman to give them keys to the center and threatened to kill him, too. And they had a sharp theological argument with Rauf, accusing him of siding with the Black Muslims.
"They talked about cutting off people's heads," said Tesdell. "They didn't want us to make any mistake about their intentions to follow instructions. They were friendly and pleasant in how they said it, but they made it clear they would do whatever Allah said."
Tesdell, a minister in the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, described the theological arguments he had with the gunmen.
"How are you so sure Allah wants you to kill people?" he would ask.
"The book (Koran), the book tells us," a gunman would answer. The gunmen spoke of holy war and early history.
"But how do you know it's Allah's will?" Tesdell would insist.
"Our leader Hamaas says so," they would retort.
"But when you go to Heaven you have to account for yourself, your teacher can't help you there," Tesdell would conclude.
"When they spoke about unbelievers they were almost always speaking against false Muslims, not the rest of us," Tesdell explained.
"After the situation settled, Tesdell said, there was general calmness and politeness from the gunmen. "At one point one of the men started picking up paper cups, cleaning up," he said. "They wanted to leave the place in a neat condition."
But that began to change Thursday afternoon when it appeared that negotiations between officials and the Hanafi leader weren't going well.
Things got tense toward dusk Thursday, and Tesdell said, one gunman "made a slitting motion at his throat and pointed to Dr. Rauf and me and Luis and others."
Tesdell said he was fearful that the demand to have the killers of the Hanafis in 1973 delivered to them by authorities could not possibly be met - and that this would lead to a beheading.
He also worried that their demands would expand as they thought of new ideas. One gunman told him, "We're going to want Kissinger because we think he gave the signal for the 1973 murders." Tesdell argued with this, and the matter was dropped.
"Mental difficulties, irrationality. I felt from the first day this was not one of the things to worry about," said Tesdell, "but you do have to worry about self-righteousness - this is a terribly dangerous thing - and about naivete, and worry about things turning sour. That's what really worried me at the end."
Despite some amenities and polite behavior, Osman noted, "It was very dangerous. If the police took another course, then we wouldn't be alive because they were really sincere in their cause. They were determined."
When news came over the radio Thursday evening that officials would meet directly with the Hanafi leader, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, however, Tesdell "thought there was nothing else to worry about," and went to sleep.
He awoke about 1:30 a.m. yesterday with a policeman standing over him and saying, "You're a free man."
Freedom came in the dark. As Mrs. Rauf described it, all the hostages were lying on the floor, or sitting in chairs, when a call came - apparently from Khaalis - and the gunmen put down their guns and their jackets and left, leaving their hostages quiet and bewildered in the darkened offices.
"I told (another woman hostage) to pretend we were sleeping," Mrs. Rauf said, "then we started to sit up. Suddenly two policemen came in and said everything was ok."
Rauf was somewhat philosophical about the threats on his life.
"I told (my wife) at one point that I had some good news for her," Rauf said. "They were only going to kill me, they would not kill her. I asked her to take care of the children and bury me if possible in Medina (a Moslem holy place) or my home country, Egypt."
Mrs. Rauf said she had been preparing for a trip to New York on Wednesday when "a man with a big gun" burst into the Rauf apartment at the center. "He said come down, come down. Be cooperative and nice. I said I would, but what's going on?"
Later she told her captors, "I'm not afraid of you." They told her they were taking over the center. "I said, 'take it if you want it. Hell to you,' I said, "take it but leave us alone. We've had nothing to do with those murders."
Why was Rauf a target of the Hanafis?
"Hamaas accused me of sympathizing with Wallace Muhammad," he said. "I replied that I support all Muslims." Mrs. Rauf said that after the Hanafi murders in 1973, Khaalis called her husband several times to complain that he had not done enough to help the Hanafis in their trouble. "He called my husband a devil and other terrible names," she said.
Yet neither Rauf holds any bitterness toward the men who terrorized their small community. They see them as sincere men who were following orders, who are misguided but worthy of forgiveness.
At noon yesterday, the high tenor of the mosque's muezzin calling the faithful to prayer was heard once again. As Rauf entered the mosque, wearing the same suit he had spent so many hours in during what he refers to as "the ordeal," worshippers came up to embrace him. Two other hostages, Abdul Rahman Osman and another center employee, knelt on the carpeted floor of the sanctuary with the others for the weekly Friday congregational prayer service.
"Al hamdulillah," was the greeting among them: "Thanks be to God."