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Imam's legal woes leave his followers frustrated

Just weeks after their imam, or spiritual leader, was arrested last fall by federal agents and stripped of his work authorization, members of the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon found themselves standing around a body in the mosque, wondering who would lead the prayers for the deceased.

"Many members said Imam Masood should lead the prayer; half said he shouldn't," said Omar Abdala, who attends the center. "At the end of the day, he took someone aside and reminded him how to do a funeral prayer, and that person did it. But that whole issue is just an example of the type of resentment that is fostering."

It has been half a year since Hafiz Muhammed Masood was arrested on visa fraud charges. The most serious charges against him have been dropped. But he is still not allowed to work, leaving the Islamic Center struggling to find ways to continue without its leader.

The situation poses daily difficulty and frustration not only for the mosque, say those familiar with the situation, but also for Masood, a Pakistan-born father of eight.

"The effect on the community has been terrible, especially for Friday prayer and social gatherings. We are missing him," said Khaled Attia, who is on the board of directors for the Islamic Center of New England.

"He's a very honorable man, and it's not easy for a man like him to be put in a position where he can't support his family," said Hossam AlJabri, Boston chapter president of the Muslim American Society and a member of the mosque. His children attend the adjacent school, where Masood taught before his arrest. Community members and local organizations have been providing financial assistance.

Masood was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in November during a nationwide sweep of an alleged scheme to provide religious-worker visas for immigrants working secular jobs. The charges stirred rallies of support for him outside of the courthouse in Boston during a bond hearing, and criticism from leaders of churches and temples in Sharon.

Although the immigration fraud charges were eventually dropped, Masood still faces a lesser charge: that he overstayed his visa in the early 1990s -- which he denies. Last month, a hearing date was set for Oct. 11 to determine whether he, and possibly his family, should be deported.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials declined to comment on the case.

For now, Masood, who was released on $7,500 bond, is finding his role at the mosque in a state of uncertainty. Duties of the imam, including weddings and family counseling, have been put off until Masood's legal troubles are resolved.

"The mosque is very conscious about following all of the laws," said AlJabri, so it has to follow the order that Masood not work. But, he said, it was "very difficult for them to . . . ask him not to be the imam. It was not an easy decision for them to make."

Masood, who has been an imam in Sharon since 1998, could not be reached for comment.

Attia, the Islamic Center of New England board member, said Masood still leads sermons and prayers occasionally because they are services that can be performed by anyone in the community. But he said that Masood and officials at the center are cautious about whether what he does could be perceived as work -- especially considering that his family lives on Islamic Center of New England property.

"We can't allow him to perform the regular duties as imam because we are afraid he will get in trouble, and we will get in trouble," he said.

Because the role of imam is so vital, and the process to select one is extensive, the center has decided to wait until his court date before considering replacing him.

"There is tension, but anticipation that this will be resolved as fast as possible so that we can get back to being a community," Attia said. "We have fasted and had prayers at night. We are 100 percent behind him."

The original charges against Masood stemmed from an alleged link to Muhammad Khalil, who was convicted in 2004 for a Brooklyn-based visa fraud scheme in which he collected cash payments in exchange for falsely stating that certain immigrants were religious leaders at his mosque.

Officials have since dropped those charges against Masood, but allege that he did not leave the country for two years in the early 1990s as part of the conditions of his student visa, according to his lawyer, William Joyce. Masood's son, Hassan, was also arrested in November in connection with his father's visa.

Abdala, who heads the Boston chapter of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation, said the charges against the imam have left some somber and others bitter.

"The primary feeling is of resentment, particularly that so many resources are going into prosecuting such a frivolous case," Abdala said. "The secondary feeling is a little bit of fear. To take Imam Masood, who is very actively presenting a peaceful voice, isn't right."

Attia said he was most upset to hear about the October court date, which falls almost a year after Masood's arrest. He said he was hoping the imam would be back in time for Ramadan, a period of fasting which falls in September.

"We were hoping this would be resolved before then," Attia said. "We need him."

Erin Conroy can be reached at econroy@globe.com.

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