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Pikesville mosque to open at Slade Mansion on Park Heights Avenue

Religious ConflictsCults and SectsIndiaWorld War II (1939-1945)September 11, 2001 Attacks

Synagogues and schools line Park Heights Avenue in Pikesville — Temple Oheb Shalom, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the Shoshana S. Cardin School, among them. Nearby is the nation's largest kosher grocery store, and signs promoting Jewish organizations dot the neighborhood.

Now the street that runs through the heart of Baltimore's Jewish community is getting a new religious building: a mosque for Ahmadi Muslims. That plan has taken some area residents by surprise and even stirred some concerns.

The Baltimore congregation of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam has bought the Slade Mansion, a white, Colonial-style house at Slade and Park Heights avenues, a busy intersection in Pikesville. Local members of the sect, which has been persecuted in other parts of the world, have outgrown their home in the city and hope they can find a comfortable home in the deeply religious neighborhood.

Some neighborhoods — in Tennessee, Georgia and New York City — have reacted angrily to proposed mosques and Islamic centers. Ahmadi Muslims were blocked in 2008 from building a worship center in Frederick County after residents complained about crowded roads.

Jewish community leaders say they are trying to show the Ahmadi congregation that Pikesville will welcome them. After some people expressed fears about the mosque, neighbors reached out to the Muslim group and encouraged members to introduce themselves to people who live, work and worship nearby.

Traveling down Park Heights, people "see one synagogue after another, and now all of a sudden you will also see a mosque, which is surprising to some people," said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. He said a "small segment" of the community has expressed fear about the mosque.

"I've always believed that fear is based upon ignorance." he said.

"What they knew of [Islam] was based on 9/11 and beyond."

Ahmadi Muslims are a minority sect founded in India in 1889. Dr. Agha Khan, who oversees finances for the Baltimore congregation, greeted members of the Baltimore Jewish Council this month, starting with an Arabic saying and then the English motto of his sect: "Love for all and hatred for none." Neighbors are highly esteemed in their view, he said.

"The basic message that we have is peace and friendship," Khan said later.

'Quintessential Jewish suburb'

A third of Baltimore's Jews live in Pikesville, making it the largest Jewish community in the area, according to a 2010 survey commissioned by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Pikesville became "the quintessential Jewish suburb" in the 1970s, but the reasons behind that go back much further, said Deborah Weiner, research historian at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Many Jews settled in Northwest Baltimore in the 19th century, partly because of housing discrimination in other parts of the city. Jews moved away from their neighborhoods downtown as they became upwardly mobile — first German Jews in the 1880s and 1890s, and then Eastern Europeans in the 1920s, she said.

As suburbanization changed the landscape of Baltimore and other American cities in the decades after World War II, Jews kept moving northwest, following the corridors of Liberty and Reisterstown roads and Park Heights Avenue, Weiner said.

"Jews have always been interested in forming Jewish neighborhoods where they have their own institutions, synagogues, businesses," she said.

When word got out about the Muslim congregation's purchase of the Slade Mansion — the congregation bought the property in March for $900,000 — some in the surrounding area were uneasy, said Neville Jacobs, president of the Pikesville-Greenspring Community Coalition.

"There were calls from people who worried," he said. "They didn't know what to expect."

Jacobs said he first found out about the congregation's plans in April when he got a call from a local community association president. "She had received three calls from people who were very disturbed, very agitated," he said.

But now Jacobs calls the relocation a "nonissue" and believes that most people will welcome the Muslim congregation. For that, much of the credit goes to Khan.

Khan, a neurosurgeon at Sinai Hospital — a cornerstone of Baltimore's Jewish community — is considered his congregation's go-to guy. The eighth of nine children, he was born in Pakistan after his family moved from India. He has a deep interest in Africa and has traveled to Ghana to help build a hospital there.

A friendly 57-year-old with glasses and a short gray beard, Khan was driving through Pikesville last fall when the mansion caught his eye as a possible home for the Ahmadi Muslim congregation that had outgrown its building on Garrison Boulevard in Northwest Baltimore. The Slade Mansion, located near the Beltway, was the perfect spot and size for the congregation's 40 families, who live throughout the Baltimore area.

"It's a beautiful building, very strongly built," Khan said. "I knew this was a Jewish neighborhood, but that didn't cross my mind that that should be a problem at all."

Jewish leaders, as well as Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, have reached out to the congregation, said Khan, adding that he has received welcome letters from area synagogues. The group hopes to move there within the next few months.

"I make an effort to go and explain … what we are about," Khan said. In addition to speaking to the Baltimore Jewish Council, he has met with rabbis and community groups, and appeared on a Jewish radio show.

"Any of the people who have been nervous, once they meet Dr. Khan and understand about the Ahmadi movement..there hasn't been a problem after," said Mandee Simmons, who handles community relations for the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation said many people have simply been "curious but open to learning."

"Many people don't know many Muslims," Busch said. "So I would describe them as just curious as to who is this group of Muslims."

The mansion is near Busch's synagogue, and across the street from the sprawling grounds of the Suburban Club, a Jewish country club. According to a real estate listing, the "beautifully restored" home, built in 1901, has 10 bedrooms and five bathrooms. It sits on 4 acres and features a "[s]pectacular 1st floor library with fireplace and stained glass."

It once served as an assisted-living facility.

Khan said the most common question he has encountered is whether the congregation plans to change the appearance of the mansion. It doesn't, he said, though it plans to add some parking spaces to the grounds.

'Good neighbors'

Ahmadi Muslims believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who lived in India in the 19th century, was sent by God as the promised messiah. Their U.S. headquarters are in Silver Spring.

Some Muslims do not consider Ahmadiyya members to be true Muslims because they interpret parts of the Quran differently, said Marius Deeb, a professor of Islamic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Adherents believe that Jesus went to Kashmir, India, after surviving the crucifixion, he added.

"Mainstream Muslims don't look at them with favor," he said

In 1993, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution — requested by the local Ahmadi population — condemning Pakistan for "systematic repression" of the sect's members.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is a pacifist movement, Deeb said. According to its website, the sect rejects terrorism and endorses a separation of religion and state.

Still, in the Frederick County town of Walkersville, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community tried to buy more than 200 acres of farmland to use for a worship center and space for annual conventions. The town's zoning board rejected the plan, saying the area's roads and emergency services couldn't handle the number of people who would attend a national convention.

In 2008, the landowner filed a religious discrimination lawsuit. The lawsuit was settled in 2009, with the town agreeing to buy the property for $4.7 million, according the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which has tracked disputes over mosques.

For the past five years, the congregation of the First Mount Olive Freewill Baptist Church in Baltimore has used Baltimore Hebrew Congregation's building for services after suffering a fire at its city location. The synagogue has now offered to let the Ahmadi congregation use its space for parking.

"Ideally, our religious traditions should lead us all to try to reach out to others, to be good neighbors and to learn about our about our neighbors," Busch said.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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