Safety still a struggle for faithful

By Rebecca Rosen Lum

Contra Costa Times

Aug. 15–An arson fire that gutted an Antioch mosque Sunday has turned a spotlight on the conundrum facing religious institutions on the political fault line: how to repel intruders while welcoming worshippers.

“That is what I’m having so much trouble explaining to my son right now,” said Abdul Rahman, chairman of Islamic Center of the East Bay, the torched mosque. “I try to tell him there are good and bad people.”

But many religious leaders say that preparing too diligently for the bad weakens what the faithful seek.

“This is a place of worship. You want to come in at 4 in the morning and pray, you can pray,” said Dian Alyan, spokesperson for Santa Clara Muslim Community Association, the Bay Area’s largest mosque.

Yet representatives of many mosques, synagogues and Sikh temples say they have struck a balance between neighborliness and security.

The comfort comes in knowing that very few people intend to harm them, said Amer Siddiqee of American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Siddiqee’s neighbors in Santa Clara asked whether they could shop or perform other errands for him so he would not suffer from others’ misguided rage.

“We feel really blessed,” he said. Nonetheless, his mosque has a security system.

“Generally, religious institutions have not been the best on concentrating on security issues,” said Jonathan Bernstein, head of the Anti-Defamation League Central Pacific Region. “They are busy communicating other kinds of messages.”

Bernstein headed the agency when two white supremacist brothers firebombed three Sacramento area synagogues.

In the aftermath, the league produced a comprehensive manual to help religious agencies guard against attack.

“If someone comes into your mosque or temple, (and) that person is not familiar to you, do you ignore it, or do you go up and say ‘hi,’ ask if they need help? That’s great security right there,” Bernstein said.

Confusing Sikhs with the Taliban, assailants tried to firebomb a Stockton temple after Sept. 11, said J.P. Singh, president of the Sikh Center of the Bay Area in El Sobrante.

“The FBI said the only way to catch these guys is by having surveillance cameras.” The El Sobrante temple keeps people on its premises 24 hours a day, Singh said.

Religious institutions will forever grapple with these issues, said a lawmaker who was on a hit list the two supremacist brothers prepared.

“We never have the luxury of believing our work in this area is ever done,” said state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

“People should not be scared,” said Amer Araim of the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center. “I hope the community will have solidarity. We have trust in law and order.”

As the religious communities reacted the Antioch crime Tuesday, Contra Costa Fire investigators and FBI agents again met with leaders of the Islamic Center of the East Bay but had nothing new to report, Rahman said.

In the meantime, the mosque leaders and Antioch officials are trying to find an alternative worship space.

Rahman was optimistic they would find a place in time for Friday prayers, even if it meant holding services under a tent in the parking lot of the burned-out mosque.

Members hope to remain in Antioch, Rahman said.

Antioch resident Faisal Rehman, 17, said he wishes the arsonist would experience something other than arrest, trial and punishment.

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” he said. “I’d just like … for his intentions to be changed.”


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