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A Muslim leader reaches out

A goal to build ties, fight extremism, find Sharon an imam

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2008

Imam Khalid Nasr, head of the Islamic Center of New England, has been doing double duty since the imam of the center's Sharon mosque was arrested on immigration charges a year and a half ago.

Nasr, a 37-year-old Egyptian native, has been going back and forth between Sharon and the center's other mosque, in Quincy, conducting services in both places and delegating duties to trained lay people when schedules conflict.

"We can say I am officially the imam of both centers until we can find a new imam," said Nasr, spiritual leader of more than 1,000 Muslims in the south suburbs. "It's a hard situation until we find out the final word from the court."

Nasr, a US resident since 2000, is trying to guide the region's Muslim community through a difficult period. In November 2006, Imam Muhammad Masood, a native of Pakistan, was arrested by federal agents on charges he had falsified immigration papers. On Feb. 28 this year, Masood pleaded guilty and now awaits sentencing. Deportation or jail time are possibilities for the religious leader, known locally for trying to build bridges to non-Muslims before his arrest. Several clergy leaders in Sharon rallied around Masood and circulated a petition on his behalf.

The publicity surrounding Massood's arrest has been a source of distress for the area's Muslim community, already coping with unease that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It was a shock for the community to see their imam arrested," said Nasr.

A replacement for Masood will be sought once the legal case is over, according to Nasr.

"A big mosque like Sharon cannot be left without an imam," he said.

Federal authorities indicated that Masood's immigration issues were unrelated to anti-terrorism investigations.

Nasr lives in a house on the grounds of the Islamic Center in Quincy Point with his wife and two children, ages 5 and 6. Before coming here in 2005 to head the organization, Nasr and his family had lived in North Carolina. Nasr's children attend Quincy's Clifford Marshall Elementary School. He plans to apply for US citizenship next year. An outspoken foe of Islamic extremism, Nasr has made outreach to Christians and other non-Muslims a trademark of his leadership. He meets regularly with the heads of area Christian congregations and several times a month welcomes school groups to tour the Quincy mosque. He also has gone to local churches, where he participates in prayer services then speaks briefly to the congregations about Islam.

"He really wants to present the American Muslim as an integral part of the whole community," said Ghazwan Ghaza of Canton, a member of the board of directors of the New England Islamic Center. "He is building on the connections."

Said Nasr: "We are not strangers anymore. This is our home. Our intention is to stay here and be part of this community."

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in America. In the south suburbs, official membership in the Islamic Center has not grown significantly in recent years - perhaps because immigration has slowed since Sept. 11, 2001 - but participation in weekly services and celebrations is up sharply, according to Nasr. The regular Friday services at the Quincy mosque now draw about 500 people, up from 300 three years ago, according to Nasr. The growth in participation appears to be largely due to new generations of Muslims coming to services.

The Islamic Center in Quincy was founded in 1963 by a group of Lebanese families who gathered together to worship. Over the next several decades, the organization grew steadily, and in the 1990s, the center acquired property in Sharon and built its second mosque.

Nasr estimates that 45 percent of the members of the Islamic Center are from Arab countries, 45 percent from India and Pakistan, and 10 percent from other parts of the world.

Nasr, who has bachelor's and master's degrees from universities in Egypt, is working toward his doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Cairo. He said he would like to obtain another graduate degree from Harvard or another Boston-area university.

Combating extremism is an important goal of Nasr's. He said Sept. 11 was a wakeup call for Muslim leaders. Before the terrorist attacks, leaders were not paying attention to the threat that extremists posed, according to Nasr.

"The only protection you can have is from the religious leaders," he said. "They are the only people capable of stopping the extremism."

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.

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