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Charge: Taxpayer money promoting Islam worldwide

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–American taxpayer money is being used to build mosques and otherwise promote Islam, according to a conservative watchdog group, a Washington newspaper and a Middle East commentator.

The American Center for Law and Justice has called on the U.S. State Department to remove Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York, from a taxpayer-funded trip to the Middle East to discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance.

“This shows a tremendous lack of judgment on behalf of the State Department and for the American taxpayers to be funding this global journey is not only wrong, but deeply offensive,” Jay Sekulow, ACLJ’s chief counsel, said Aug. 10. “We demand that the State Department put a halt to the imam’s participation in this publicly-funded trip.”

Rauf has refused to declare Hamas a terrorist organization, the ACLJ news release said, and in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said U.S. foreign policy could be considered an “accessory” to the tragedy.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Rauf will travel to Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in an effort sponsored by the U.S. government’s Bureau of International Information Programs.

“We have about 1,200 of these kinds of programs every year, sending experts on all fields overseas,” Crowley said at a press briefing Aug. 10. “Last year we had 52 trips that were specifically focused on promoting religious tolerance.”

Crowley said this will be Rauf’s third trip under the program. In 2007, during the Bush administration, he visited Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE and Qatar, and in January he visited Egypt. The State Department’s discussions with Rauf about the latest trip preceded the current debate surrounding the Ground Zero mosque, Crowley said.

Rauf is a chief fundraiser for the mosque, and critics of his presence on the trip have speculated that the taxpayer-funded goodwill mission could help him build contacts in the oil-rich nations.

“Does the State Department have any idea they are sending a guy to the Middle East who is going to be fundraising perhaps among the very same people he will be meeting with?” said Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

The Washington Times published an editorial Aug. 10 saying Rauf’s trip could be “simply a taxpayer-funded fundraising jaunt to underwrite his reviled project.”

Though the State Department considers Rauf a “distinguished Muslim cleric,” The Times said “surely the government could find another such figure in the United States who is not seeking millions of dollars to fund a construction project that has so strongly divided America.”

The State Department is creating the appearance that the U.S. government is facilitating the construction of the Ground Zero mosque, the editorial said.

“Americans also may be surprised to learn that the United States has been an active participant in mosque construction projects overseas,” The Times said. “In April, U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Alfonso E. Lenhardt helped cut the ribbon at the 12th-century Kizimkazi Mosque, which was refurbished with assistance from the United States under a program to preserve culturally significant buildings.

“The U.S. government also helped save the Amr Ebn El Aas Mosque in Cairo, which dates back to 642,” the newspaper said. “The mosque’s namesake was the Muslim conqueror of Christian Egypt, who built the structure on the site where he had pitched his tent before doing battle with the country’s Byzantine rulers.

“For those who think the Ground Zero Mosque is an example of ‘Muslim triumphalism’ glorifying conquest, the Amr Ebn El Aas Mosque is an example of such a monument — and one paid for with U.S. taxpayer funds.”

Daniel Pipes, a Middle East commentator, has been following the use of taxpayer dollars to rebuild or refurbish mosques since early 2004 when he noted an article by an Agence France-Presse reporter who told of finding a stone marker by the side of a road in Afghanistan that read “Matachina Mosque, rebuilt in 2002 with the assistance of the American people.”

The article explained that the mosque was bombarded in the midst of the American offensive against the Taliban in November 2001, and the U.S. Army helped rebuild it.

In a post titled “The U.S. Government Builds Mosques and Madrassahs” at danielpipes.org, Pipes chronicles other examples of taxpayer dollars being used. The article was first posted Feb. 24, 2004 and has been updated subsequently.

Among the examples Pipes provides:

— Through USAID, the United States government is providing $157 million over a five-year period to build schools in Indonesia, including one called Madrassah Tanjungpura, an Islamic religious school less than two hours from Jakarta, Pipes says.

It’s one of more than 1,000 primary schools in seven provinces that is part of USAID’s Decentralized Basic Education project. In Indonesia, madrassas follow the same national curriculum as secular schools, but also have a religious education component, USAID said in January.

— The Telegraph in London reported in May 2007 that the United States was building madrassas in Afghanistan to persuade parents not to send their children across the border to Pakistan for instruction at hard-line religious schools.

“Work has started on two ‘super-madrassas’ in Paktika, which borders Pakistan, and more are planned,” The Telegraph said. “The American government is also paying for the refurbishment of mosques in the area, in the hope of winning over religious leaders.”

The newspaper did quote an American officer in Sharana, Afghanistan, who said, “In Afghan terms it is a madrassa, but those words have baggage and if word gets back to a Western public that we are building madrassas, that is a bad thing. It is a religious school, but it is not a religious education. The governor is trying to ensure that there is some sort of control over the curriculum, to ensure that radical Islam is not being fomented through these schools.”

— The New York Times reported in January that as part of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, some infantry units are paying locals to rebuild infrastructure and renovate mosques.

Eight Marine-financed mosque projects were in the works in Helmand Province at the time the article was written, and dozens more were on a list of anticipated projects. “Mosques are the big thing right now,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Mark Funk told The Times.

Pipes objected to taxpayer money being used in such ways.

“The policy of building madrassas and refurbishing mosques in Afghanistan is madness. It is also unconstitutional,” Pipes wrote. “American taxes are being used to favor, abroad, a religion, and far worse, one religion over others. Where is the constitutional challenge to this?”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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