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Muslim, Jewish leaders see fresh start

End of lawsuit creates opening

Dr. Yousef Abou-Allaban of the Islamic Society of Boston and Mahdi Bray (wearing red tie), executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, took questions from reporters yesterday at the site of mosque to be built in Roxbury. (PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF)

Boston-area Jewish and Muslim leaders sighed in relief yesterday at the resolution of a lengthy legal dispute over the planned construction of a mosque in Roxbury, saying the development cleared the way for renewed local dialogue between adherents of the two faiths.

On Tuesday, the Islamic Society of Boston abandoned its defamation case against a Jewish group and media organizations that alleged they had maliciously spread rumors that the Islamic Society had terrorist links. That followed the February dismissal of another lawsuit challenging the mosque's construction.

The lawsuits had lingered for two years, producing charges and countercharges that seemed to echo larger cultural stereotypes: Muslims were accused of secretly harboring extremist views, while Jews were charged with conspiring to destroy their enemies.

As a result, a tentative local interfaith dialogue initiated in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had been poisoned by mistrust on both sides, said local Jewish and Islamic leaders.

"It was moving in a positive direction; and then this thing came, and it polarized everyone," said David Gordis, president of Hebrew College in Newton. "Lawsuits have a way of polarizing."

During a press conference yesterday, Muslim leaders said they are moving ahead with the Roxbury mosque's construction; it would be the largest in New England and is envisioned as a center of local Islamic life. Muslim leaders said they would seek to remedy damage caused to Islamic- Jewish relations by the litigation.

"There is a lot of mistrust among the Jewish community about us; we're really looking forward to rebuilding that relationship," M. Bilal Kaleem, executive director of the Muslim American Society's Boston chapter, said in an interview. "The settlement will allow us to talk in sort of clearer waters."

The Islamic Society filed its defamation lawsuit in 2005 after news coverage questioning the price the group paid the city for land on which the mosque is being built. The suit named 16 defendants, including the Boston Herald, FOX TV-25, and the David Project, a nonprofit Jewish advocacy group that was a source in many of the stories.

Islamic Society leaders said yesterday that they dropped the case because a parallel legal development -- a judge recently dismissed a Boston man's contention that the mosque land deal violated church-state separation -- would allow work on the religious site to go forward.

"It was never about money," said Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, as he stood yesterday in front of the mosque's partially built doorway. "It was about religious freedom."

Over the last two years, numerous Jewish leaders had repeatedly called for an end to the legal hostilities, including Michael Felsen of the Workmen's Circle, a nonprofit Jewish community organization.

"It is my hope that the dropping of the lawsuits will help us move toward affirming the common humanity of all religious, cultural, and ethnic groups," he said yesterday. "Anti-Semitism hurts all of us, and anti-Muslim prejudice also hurts all of us. It's time to seek mutual understanding and respectful engagement."

However, legal fights are not completely over for the Islamic Society. A lawyer for the David Project said the group would continue to pursue legal efforts to force Boston officials to release documents pertaining to the mosque land deal. The Islamic Society bought the land from the City of Boston for $175,000 in 2003, plus a package of community benefits, even though it had been assessed for $401,000.

"There are certain peculiarities about the transaction," said lawyer Jeff Robbins. "It does not serve to have the transaction shielded from public view. The [city] owes us records."

During the legal standoff, many local Jewish groups opposed the David Project's stance, revealing fissures within the Jewish community itself.

"The people involved in the lawsuit did not represent the Jewish community," said Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline. "The David Project is more conservative than a lot of people in the Jewish community."

Waldoks said he had been quietly meeting with Islamic leaders even during the course of the lawsuit in an effort to keep the post-Sept. 11 dialogue alive. He said that local rabbis and imams had several lively discussions about faith and culture.

"We don't talk politics; we talk about religious texts," he said of the meetings. "We try to educate ourselves about each other. There's a tremendous lack of knowledge about Jews among Muslims. And the same on the Jewish side."

He said those discussions could now be more open. And he said Jewish leaders now feel more comfortable in attending the eventual opening ceremonies of the Roxbury mosque, expected to be a watershed moment for local Muslims.

"It's not our goal to solve the Middle East's problems in Boston," Waldoks said. "Our goal is to create a community in the Boston area where Jews and Muslims can have mutual cooperation and respectful dialogue."

Donovan Slack of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Clarification: This story was unclear about allegations in the suit. The suit alleged that the plaintiffs had maliciously spread rumors that the Islamic Society had terrorist links.