Courtesy Elizabeth Llorente
NEW JERSEY (The Record) March 1, 2008 – One of the stateâ€™s most influential and high-profile Muslim leaders is facing deportation along with his wife and children.
Immigration officials are refusing to grant permanent residency to Imam Mohammad Qatanani, who came to the United States in 1996 on a religious work visa.
They say Qatanani, the imam for the Islamic Center of Passaic County, failed to disclose in his green card application a 1993 Israeli Military Court conviction against him for â€œassisting Hamas,â€ according to his attorney.
The accusation, which Qatanani denies, has outraged supporters of the 44-year-old spiritual leader. Qatanani is widely respected among New Jersey political and religious leaders as a devoted proponent of peace and bringing diverse groups together.
His mosque, in Paterson, has been host to interfaith gatherings that have drawn Governor Corzine and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., among other political leaders. He was the first Muslim leader to officiate the opening of the state General Assembly. Many note he was one of the first imams in the nation to denounce the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and terrorism. He provided space in the mosque to FBI officials seeking to recruit Arabic speakers.
Immigration officials declined to comment, citing a May trial in Newark on Qatananiâ€™s new application for legal residency for himself and immigrant family members.
Pascrell had strong words Friday on the imamâ€™s behalf.
â€œIâ€™ve seen with my own eyes a gentleman whoâ€™s had a tremendous positive influence in the community,â€ he said. â€œThe immigration department is talking about something that goes way back many years, and they have every right and responsibility to look into that. But heâ€™s done nothing but good since heâ€™s been in the United States, and many of us are ready to stand up and go to court to testify about him if need be.â€
Also on Friday, members of the stateâ€™s Muslim and Arab communities launched support campaigns, including a petition drive.
â€œMany in the community are very upset,â€ said Waheed Khalid, past president of the Darul Islah Mosque in Teaneck. â€œWhere do we go to get justice? If heâ€™s deported, it will be the saddest day not only for Muslims, but also New Jersey and this country.â€
Qatanani, a Palestinian, and his attorney, Claudia Slovinsky of Manhattan, confirm that Israelis detained the imam for three months in 1993, having arrested him as he visited relatives in the West Bank. But they say Israeli officials made no mention of any prosecution. Such detention and interrogation was a practice they say was commonly used against Palestinian men.
â€œHe has been consistently forthright to all U.S. government officials in providing all information he had regarding this period of detention,â€ Slovinsky said in a written summary. â€œThe government makes no allegations of, or presents proof of, membership in or assistance to any questionable organizations aside from the documents from the Israeli National Police.â€
Qatanani says he has only theories about why the Israelis detained him. He had left the West Bank in 1982 and worked as an imam and community college teacher for years, helping young Palestinians go study in Jordan. But he said heâ€™s never shrunk from loudly denouncing Israeli occupation in the area, either.
â€œI say the occupation is unacceptable,â€ he said. â€œI am not a silent man.â€
He said the Israelis confronted him during his 1993 visit.
â€œThey said â€˜Why are you talking this way?â€™ â€œ
They also raised questions about the students heâ€™d helped get to Jordan, he said, suggesting links between them and groups like Hamas. That group, now controlling the Gaza Strip, advocateâ€™s Israelâ€™s destruction and is branded by the U.S. and European Union as a terrorist organization.
â€œIt is untrue that I helped Hamas,â€ Qatanani said. â€œAs an imam, when someone comes to me to ask for help, I help them. I told them [the Israelis]: â€˜These students come from Palestine, they are very poor. I help them find housing, get into the university.â€™ I donâ€™t know everything theyâ€™re doing in their lives, I have no clue.â€
Qatanani said he was detained, told little about why, then released unceremoniously.
â€œThey just release you,â€ he said, â€œwhich means they have nothing to hold against you.â€
Slovinsky said Qatanani did not lie when he omitted the detention on his immigration application.
Because Israeli authorities did not tell him he was being prosecuted, she said, he was unaware it was more than a common detention until U.S. authorities told him otherwise.
Slovinsky said Qatanani answered to the best of his knowledge when he said in his immigration application that heâ€™d never been arrested or convicted in connection with a crime.
And, questioned in the last few years by FBI, immigration and other government authorities, Qatanani had mentioned the detention, she said.
â€œTheyâ€™re not claiming that heâ€™s a terrorist,â€ Slovinsky said. â€œThereâ€™s no proof of that. Heâ€™s got no secret agenda. His sermons, his work, all show that this is a man of peace.â€