FBI tries to make peace with Maryland Muslims

Islamic leaders meet with agency in Frederick

March 14, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- The FBI told representatives of Maryland Islamic communities yesterday that it won't seek lists of their worshippers, and that it regrets that some believed they were being targeted because of their faith.

Gary Bald, special agent in charge of the FBI's regional office in Baltimore, said he didn't know the source of rumors that the agency was seeking rosters of members of mosques in the state.

"I can't reference the source," Bald told reporters after a private, 90-minute meeting with Muslim leaders from around Maryland. "It's one of those things that takes on mythic proportions."

Bald said the FBI had made no such request, nor did it plan to.

The FBI said it initiated the meeting, held in a public library conference room, to establish a "liaison" with Muslim communities.

"There's a level of distrust we need to dispel," said Barry A. Maddox, an FBI spokesman at the Baltimore office.

Bald said the FBI also wanted Muslims to know it would aggressively investigate hate crimes against them. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the agency says there have been hundreds of threats, crimes or incidents of vandalism against Muslims nationally.

The Islamic Society of Hagerstown's sign has been torn down, and the group has received threatening phone calls that compelled it to close a day care center.

The rumor of an FBI list of Muslim congregants caused further anxiety. Some of the largest congregations are in Frederick, Silver Spring and Hagerstown -- all of which sent representatives yesterday.

Khalil Elshazly, a mechanical engineer who leads the 400-member Islamic Society of Frederick, said he wanted to focus on forging better relations with the FBI.

He had concluded a recent sermon in Frederick by advising worshippers not to talk to the FBI without first consulting lawyers or the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

But after the meeting -- he and other Frederick Muslims also met with the FBI on Feb. 19 -- Elshazly said, "When they contacted us in the beginning, we were skeptical. Not now."

The FBI said it originally planned to hold the meetings with no one but the agents and Muslims present. But Elshazly and others decided to invite area religious and political leaders to sit in. He also invited reporters, who waited outside the meeting room.

"We are all in the same ship together," said Yahya Hendi, imam of the Frederick society. "Any attack on American Muslims is an attack on America."

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