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Muslims find place to pray

The Rogue Valley's Muslim community has founded a new mosque in what might seem an unlikely place — a former retail space in downtown Phoenix.

The new organization, called the Muslim American Society of South Oregon, was formed from the now defunct Al-Tawheed mosque and gives about 30 to 40 local Muslims, including students from the Mideast attending Southern Oregon University, a place to practice their faith.

Dozens come to worship during traditional Friday midday lessons and prayers and other services, and the mosque is open by arrangement for any of five daily prayers.

Al-Tawheed closed in summer 2006. The new mosque (formerly Nim's), a modest, cinder-block office displaying a U.S. flag, opened several months ago.

"You don't know how happy this makes me," said Hazem Elsharkawi, a native Egyptian who is now a Medford retailer. "When I came here a year ago, there was no mosque. Without the mosque, I couldn't practice my religion. It tells me how to live and how to survive. It guides me to do the right thing."

Muslims, who are required to pray five times a day, make the trip to the mosque as often as they can daily, with Elsharkawi averaging three times a day.

Asked if Islam was the focus of his life, he responded, "Islam is all my life."

Said Saudi Arabian Meshari Abunayyan, an SOU student, "If I didn't have this mosque, I wouldn't pray. Now I can do my purpose."

Their ritual of kneeling with head to the floor is a sign of obedience and reverence to God, or Allah, performed while saying prayers and facing Mecca, the center of the Muslim world, said member Robert Taylor, a Medford banker.

The new mosque, located in Phoenix to better serve scattered members, is loosely affiliated with the national Muslim American Society in Virginia, which the Washington Post called the largest grass-roots Islamic organization in the United States. But MAS-SO operates independently as a nonprofit, raising its own money, said Taylor.

It offers a monthly potluck and prayer meeting where Muslims come from further afield — Klamath Falls, Yreka and Grants Pass, Taylor said. About 60 attend that gathering.

Mosque member and former Catholic Mary Nutter of White City said she'd been "looking for something," a God who was not Jesus, for a long time and found it while visiting her grandson, a Muslim, in Virginia.

She doesn't wear a headdress, except in prayer, and said such garments are cultural and therefore not mandated to be worn in public.

The mosque has about 15 women members and they may attend and pray alongside the men, said Taylor.

Nutter, who cleans houses for a living, said all her clients know of her religion and none has objected.

Members are aware of international tensions focused on their religion, said Taylor. "We're a very moderate group here, with no one you'd even loosely describe as extremist — and the students (from SOU) follow all the rules of Islam, are very respectful of elders and give to charity."

Only a few times, when publicly wearing a headdress associated with Islam, have members received a sour look or shaken fist from passersby, Taylor noted. There have been no unruly acts toward the mosque, he said.

Abdullah Cabral, a retired truck driver and ex-Christian living in White City, said he's only had trouble when wearing his turban out to eat.

"They sit you down and disappear, especially after 9/11 (terrorist attacks) and blowing up that ship (the USS Cole)," Cabral said. "I stopped wearing it."

Adds Taylor, "Many people come here thinking Southern Oregon is redneck but it's not. You get stares, but they're mostly curious, not negative — just a few detractors."

But Taylor has made the watch list kept by airlines, he said. He is consistently delayed and asked for more identification before being allowed to fly.

"We're under scrutiny more than the average American," he said.

In prayers and conversation, the Muslims make it clear that Islam forbids violence — unless attacked — and preaches not just tolerance but respect and acceptance of other religions.

And they refer to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks as extremism motivated by cultural and political, not religious, beliefs.

Elsharkawi points out that no one mentioned the religion of the perpetrators in the Oklahoma City bombing or the Virginia Tech massacre, but made it a prominent issue in 9/11.

"Those were radicals and people react by seeing them as Muslims. If I were in the same boat (reacting), I'd react the same way," said Magdy Zaky, an Egyptian native now working in heating and air conditioning in Medford.

In a recent sermon, Zaky, the acting imam (minister), recited the tenets of the Quran, saying the holy book "tells you what to do from the time you get up till you go to bed" — including forgiveness of harm done, patience in times of distress, enjoying what's right and avoiding what's wrong, honoring parents and defining principles of governments and relations with non-Muslims.

"Reading the Quran calms you from stress and the hustle-bustle of life," Zaky told a dozen mosque members. "To do that, you've got to pray every day, be clean inside and out and treat Muslims and all others good. God is watching you day and night "¦ and if you do one good deed, you get 10 rewards."

Taylor acknowledged the long history of misunderstandings and conflicts between Muslims on one hand and Jews and Christians on the other and notes part of the problem is people think Allah is different than God.

However, he noted, God, by definition, is one — and all three religions are descended from the same Abrahamic tradition.

Most shopkeepers in the area around the low-key mosque didn't know of its existence. One, who asked not to be identified, said, "I feel very nervous about them if it's an evil sect of Muslims, but if they're people like you and me, I have no problem with them exercising their freedom of religion."

Retailer Kerensa Ritchie voiced no objection to the mosque's presence. Her father, Ken Casteel, observed, "They're fine with me, quiet, respectful. You find extremists in every religion and if they're not doing anything immoral or illegal, who am I to judge?"

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Members of the Muslim American Society of South Oregon meet for Friday prayer services in Phoenix. Their ritual of kneeling with head to the floor is a sign of obedience and reverence to God. It is performed while saying prayers and facing Mecca, the center of the Muslim world. - Bob Pennell