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Lodi mosque deals with departure of new imam; Farooqia group switches lawyer

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Posted: Monday, December 19, 2005 10:00 pm

After just two weeks, the trial imam at the Lodi Muslim Mosque has left after a disagreement over the financial terms of a possible contract.

Meanwhile, a new attorney has been retained by representatives of the Farooqia Islamic Center, the defendants in a lawsuit filed by mosque members.

Cassim Maiter and his adult son, who came to Lodi from South Africa on a trial basis, left Sunday after mosque members said they would pay the living expenses of only one imam and not both, Interim Mosque President Mohammad Shoaib said.

"He was a good man, and we were very happy, but unfortunately, it didn't work out," Shoaib said.

It's the latest chapter in the story of unrest at the mosque, which has seen an internal split of its members and the deportation of its two last leaders in the wake of a federal terror investigation.

The search for a leader began in June after former imam Shabbir Ahmed was arrested and deported for immigration violation. His connection to Pakistani extremists was later called into question during a federal investigation of the arrests of other Lodi Muslims associated with the mosque.

Since then, mosque members say they have been looking for a candidate who speaks fluent English and has no ties to questionable organizations.

"I don't care how long it takes," interim board member Nick Qayyum said Monday. "We're going to make sure the right person ends up here."

Maiter was welcomed by the mosque at a Dec. 2 dinner. Since then, members had held out hopes that the new leader would be able to build bridges between the mosque and other churches in the area. His son, described by members as a young adult who could bond with younger audiences, accompanied the father on the trip from South Africa.

Maiter succeeded a previous candidate for imam, who hailed from Detroit and left in September after only two days in the position. Qayyum said the mosque board will search long and hard to find someone who fits well in the Lodi community, even if it means going for awhile without a permanent imam.

"It's not that critical to have an imam," he said. "You know how things are nowadays, you don't know who's who."

As a search for a new imam continues, so too does a lawsuit filed in May by mosque members over $187,000 in donations made to the Farooqia Islamic Center. Last week, the defendants changed their representation, substituting Modesto attorney Gary Nelson with high-profile Valley Springs attorney Brian Chavez-Ochoa.

Farooqia board member Nasim Khan would not comment on the move in a phone interview Monday, but the attorney confirmed he was retained last week.

In September, the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors rejected the building of an Islamic community center off Lower Sacramento Road. In the decade leading up to the decision, members raised funds for the project, including the mosque donation.

By 2004, the group had broken all ties from the mosque board, which they claimed had unfairly ousted them for political reasons. The current legal dispute is over the return of the alleged donation to members of the mosque.

Since then, leadership on the mosque board has been reorganized. Two volunteers and 10 appointees began their terms Dec. 2 and will serve until 2009.

Former members Shoaib and Qayyum will remain on the board on an interim basis until two members return from Pakistan in February.

Chavez-Ochoa said Monday he is hopeful the two parties in the lawsuit can soon reach an agreement through an impartial mediator. Only when this is solved, he said, will the Muslim community have a chance to rebuild.

"I'd really like to see the Islamic community reunite," Chavez-Ochoa said, "so it stands together as one and is not split down the middle."

Contact reporter Sara Cardine at sarac@lodinews.com.

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