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Week of 7.7.06

Profile: Imam Fawaz Damra

Fawaz Damra was born in the West Bank town of Nablus in 1961, and studied Islamic law in Jordan. He became an active religious figure in the Muslim American community as soon as he arrived in the United States back in the mid-1980s.

Imam Fawaz Damra speaking
Imam Fawaz Damra speaking
After serving as imam, or spiritual leader, at the al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn, NY from 1986 to 1990, he moved to Cleveland, where he headed northeastern Ohio's largest mosque, the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland, from 1991 to 2005.

During much of the 1990s Damra was lauded for his outreach efforts to the Jewish and Christian communities in and around Cleveland, and he was popularly viewed as a moderate Muslim. His efforts to engender tolerance and promote interfaith understanding after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks earned widespread praise from religious and civic leaders.

All that changed, however, when, in late-September 2001, a television station in Cleveland aired a leaked videotape speech Damra made ten years earlier, in 1991. On that tape, he recommends the stabbing of Jews in Israel and urges the crowd to point "a rifle at the first and last enemy of the Islamic nation, and that is the sons of monkeys and pigs, the Jews."

Damra characterizes those statements as the result of youthful prejudices he had developed growing up in the harsh environment of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and pointed out that at the time he made the speech, Islamic Jihad was not recognized by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. He apologized publicly.

"The person who made those comments had absolutely no interaction with the Jewish/Christian community, or have [sic] any idea what extraordinary people they are, as I now do," Damra wrote in The Cleveland Plain Dealer in October 2001. "As all of us go through evolution in our life, intellectual and spiritual, so did I, and I will now do everything in my power to continue to show the community that I am the peacemaker they have come to know me as."

But the tape brought up further questions about Damra's past, including the fact that in 1995, when the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York named 170 possible co-conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Damra's name was on the list. He was questioned by the FBI in connection with the bombing, but not charged or arrested. His successor at the Brooklyn mosque, the militant Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rachman, was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks and is now serving a life-sentence.

In January 2004 Damra's house was searched and he was arrested by federal investigators, who apparently had been monitoring the imam for years. In June of that year he was indicted on an immigration violation.

Prosecutors alleged that he lied about his affiliation with groups that allegedly persecuted Jews on his application form for U.S. citizenship and played a central fundraising role to support international terrorism. They also alleged that he "acted in furtherance of a terroristic action." Damra denied those charges. "I never raised money to any organization that is listed in the United States as organizations that support terrorism," Damra told NOW.

A federal jury ended up convicting Damra on the charge that he lied on his citizenship application, and far from the five years prosecutors urged, the judge rejected many of the government's harsher claims and handed him a sentence of two months in prison and four months of house arrest.

Damras' citizenship has been revoked and he is currently being held at a jail near Detroit where he awaits deportation. Damra, who is married and has three American-born daughters, maintains his innocence and says that he opposes terrorism of any kind. The mosque continues to support their former leader and calls this a great injustice not only for Damra but for their community.

More from NOW: Controversy in Cleveland