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Religious Heads Question Interfaith Group’s Intentions

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Times Staff Writer

The dilapidated property east of Disney World on U.S. Highway 192 has housed a motel, a vocational school and a homeless shelter. But now Zulfiqar Ali Shah, a prominent Florida imam, has a vision: to transform it into an “interfaith theme park” in the heart of central Florida, a region visited by millions each year for its tourist attractions.

The Pakistani-born, British-educated Shah speaks of building an international center to study the world’s great religions and foster dialogue among them. Islam, he said, “is perhaps the only religion that can bring the concept of universal brotherhood.”

But some local Christian and Jewish leaders are suspicious of the Universal Heritage Foundation. The organization is opening its inaugural conference today, with a list of invited guests that some specialists on Islam say includes a number of anti-Western extremists.

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“If we look at their Web site, they talk about peace and coexistence with all religions,” said Eric Geboff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando. “If we look at their speakers list, it’s at odds with those goals. And we’re concerned.”

Lee Wasson operates a small Christian school and worship center on the same sparsely wooded, 31-acre tract. But far from toiling to bring about interfaith understanding, Wasson believes, his new neighbors have been engineering problems with water and electricity that are designed to drive him out.

“He [Shah] is a liar,” the 49-year-old pastor said. “I have dug at myself intellectually and spiritually not to judge these people. But he has not been forthcoming about what his agenda is, and it is a political agenda.”

Shah, Universal Heritage’s 41-year-old chairman and chief executive, and M. Ashraf Shaikh, its president, counter that a landlord-tenant dispute inherited from the property’s previous owner has driven the minister to stir up bad publicity against them.

“Without educating people, there is no way you can bridge the gap between religions,” Shah said. “What we want to do is educate people, but not compromise what is Christianity, what is Judaism, what is Islam.”

Some fellow Muslims, however, have expressed concerns about the foundation’s intentions. Khalid Duran, a retired professor of Middle Eastern studies at various American universities, reviewed the names of the speakers invited to the “Islam for Humanity” conference and said, “They are known for their radical views -- almost all of them.”

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Many invitees, said Duran, have well-established ties to Jamaat-e-Islami, an extremist religious party in Pakistan.

“They believe in jihad, and the way they define it is in combating non-Muslims,” Duran said in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C.-area home. Among the “fundamentalist” invitees, Duran said, is Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove. Siddiqi’s defenders have said in the past that the Indian-born cleric’s words have been intentionally twisted; they point out that in 2001, he was one of several imams invited to meet with President Bush at the White House.

For protocol reasons, Shah said, he also sent an invitation to Sheik Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais -- chief cleric of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia -- without knowing of the controversy surrounding some of his past remarks.

According to Associated Press, in April 2002, Al-Sudais called on Arabs to stop trying to make peace with Jews, whom he described as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the killers of prophets and the grandsons of monkeys and pigs.” Shah said Al-Sudais would not be at the conference.

The confirmed speakers at the three-day event hail from Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Syria, the United States and Pakistan, Shah said. Far from being hate-filled radicals, he said, they “are the mainstream Islamic organizations and the mainstream Islamic leaders.” He has invited Christian ministers and Jewish rabbis as well, he said, and has gone out of his way to ask a representative from the Anti-Defamation League to be present at the conference.

State officials of the ADL, however, make no secret of their disquiet over the meeting, which is to be held in the 8,000-seat Silver Spurs Arena -- a county-owned facility -- because the old motel does not yet meet county building codes.

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“We see this unfortunately as a gathering that may bring together some anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist and anti-American activists,” said Mark Medin, the ADL’s Florida regional director. “And a gathering of this type is not good for America, not good for Islam, not good for Florida.”

However, Osceola County officials said Wednesday that the foundation and its meeting weren’t even on the public radar. “I haven’t had the first inkling,” said county commission chairman Ken Shipley.

In fact, Shipley initially was delighted upon learning that the property had found a buyer. County records show the land was sold for $2.3 million in August to Super Stop Petroleum Inc., a Margate, Fla.-based corporation. Shah said he arrived in September after negotiating a lease with the new owner, Mohammed Qureshi, a businessman and fellow immigrant from Pakistan.

Shah, who has a doctorate in comparative religion from the University of Wales, is one of this state’s best-known Islamic clerics and has traveled throughout the country.

People of all creeds, said Shah, “have to bond our efforts together so we fight racism, discrimination and inequality and serve God -- not for the sake of our own vested interests, but for the sake of humanity.” Sporting a natty blue blazer and a well-trimmed beard, Shah said he hopes his foundation would help bring America’s Muslims “out of the mosques” and get them more involved in community work and other activities.

However, some specialists point to Shah’s past affiliations as justification for their skepticism about the Universal Heritage Foundation.

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For example, the Islamic Circle of North America, of which Shah was president in 2001 and 2002, is “affiliated with the Pakistani fundamentalist group Jamaat-e-Islami, which practices an intolerant strain of Islam and promotes an anti-Western ideology,” said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a Washington-based terrorism research organization.

Katz said she was at an ICNA conference in 2000 in Baltimore when the association’s official for youth affairs made an emotional appeal to enlist members’ sons in a jihad against the Russians in Chechnya.

In his interview with The Times, however, Shah spoke of his great respect for Judaism and Christianity and the benefits learning about his religion could bring to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

“We are all human beings,” Shah said. “God has blessed us with diversity. But diversity does not mean to hate each other. It means to recognize each other and to supplement each other.”

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