US Govt move to seize 4 mosques, tower linked to Iran
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Prosecutors filed a civil complaint in federal court seeking forfeiture of more than USD 500 million in assets of the Alavi Foundation and an alleged front company, in what could turn out to be one of the biggest counter-terrorism seizures in the US history.
The Foundation, which describes itself as a non-profit organisation, was not immediately available for comments.
Properties targeted are the Islamic Education Centre of Greater Houston, Islamic centres in New York City, Maryland and California, more than 100 acres in Virginia and the 36-story office tower called Piaget building on Fifth Avenue in New York. The Islamic centres house mosques and schools.
"For two decades, the Alavi Foundation's affairs have been directed by various Iranian officials, including Iranian ambassadors to the United Nations, in violation of a series of American laws," US attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
"As today's complaint alleges in great detail, the Alavi Foundation has effectively been a front for the government of Iran," he said.
Criticising the move, he Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said a government effort to seize mosques was "unprecedented" and likely to have First Amendment implications.
"Whatever the details of the government's case against the owners of the mosques, as a civil rights organisation we are concerned that the seizure of American houses of worship could have a chilling effect on the religious freedom of citizens of all faiths and may send a negative message to Muslims worldwide," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.
New York prosecutors are charging Alavi Foundation for funnelling money back to Iran through the company Assa, which went to Iran's state-owned Bank Melli that is suspected of being engaged in Islamic Republic's nuclear programme.
The mosques and the office tower will remain open while the case works its way through the federal court in New York, which is expected to take some time.
Faheem Kazimi, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Houston's Islamic Education Centre, said the centre leases its building from Alavi Foundation and no other connection exists.
"We just heard the news. The Islamic Education Centre is a non-profit independent organisation, not affiliated with any other group...We are completely independent," Kazimi said.
The action against the Shia mosques could inflame relations between the US government and American Muslims, many of whom are fearful of a backlash after last week's Fort Hood army base shooting, blamed on a Muslim American Major.
On its website, the Alavi Foundation describes itself as "a private not-for-profit organisation devoted to the promotion and support of Islamic culture and Persian language, literature and civilisation." Its works include donation to Persian schools, loans to Islamic bodies, free distribution of Islamic books, disaster relief supporting the arts and student loans.
In a case filed last year, prosecutors wanted to seize Assa Corporation's 40 per cent stake in the skyscraper commissioned by the Shah of Iran in 1979. The present case is to seize Alavi's remaining 60 per cent of the skyscraper, as well as its other properties, including the mosques.
Farshi Jahedi, President of the foundation, was arrested last year for allegedly trying to destroy documents after being called to the court. He has denied the charges and the case is pending.
Distraught worshippers milled around outside the Houston's centre before prayers. They said they were confused and did not know what was going on.
According to its website, Islamic Education Centre (IEC) of Houston serves the community "as a centre for the Friday congregation, Islamic celebrations, community programmes, and above all as a centre for imparting knowledge about Islam and promoting Islamic values."
The Centre's premises on South Voss are occupied by one of Houston's largest Shia mosques and Al-Hadi School of Accelerative Learning, a private Islamic school.
"Among the primary goals of IEC is to inform and educate non-Muslims and Muslims about Islam and to provide information about Islam on varying levels of inquiry, from the casual passer-by to a believing and practising Muslim who wishes to extend his or her knowledge and level of piety," the website says.
Parents lined up in their cars to pick up their children at the school within Houston's IEC. No notices of forfeiture action were posted at either the school or mosque in Houston.