In Pikesville, Muslim joy tempered by Bosnia deaths


The joy of Eid al-Fitr, a feast celebrating the end of the month-long Ramadan fast, was tempered for many Baltimore-area Muslims yesterday by their sorrow, bitterness and frustration over reports of rape, torture and murder of co-religionists in Bosnia.

During Islamic festivities at the Pikesville Armory, Imam William Shaheed of West Baltimore's Masjid Ul-Haqq called Serbian "ethnic cleansing" in former Yugoslavia "an atrocity worse than the Holocaust."

"The civilized world needs to stand up and do something because Hitler's horrors are being repeated," he declared.

Imam M. Bashar Arafat, spiritual leader of both the Islamic Society of Baltimore and a mosque in Catonsville, preached to the multiracial crowd of more than 2,000 men, women and children who gathered in the armory for prayer and merry-making.

The holiday's traditions of familial unity, love and friendship were emphasized, but much of the imams' message was impassioned and sobering.

"Muslims in Bosnia are killed, tortured and driven from their homes, and there is no one to help them," Imam Arafat lamented. "They need aid to defend themselves from Serbian aggression.

"Yet, if Muslims receive the help they need and try to defend themselves, they will be called terrorists. We don't hear that word to describe the Serbs who are killing the Muslims."

Added Imam Lamont Matin of Northeast Baltimore's Masjid Muminin, "Everybody knows what needs to be done to bring justice. Why are we waiting so long to do it?"

These religious leaders and many others present were troubled by the linking of the World Trade Center bombing in New York to Muslim extremists.

"Dear brothers and sisters of Islam," Imam Arafat told the assembled worshipers in both English and Arabic, "holy Koran forbids the blowing up of the walls of New York. Never, ever, ever is this condoned. It is a distortion of the picture of Islam. Let us not forget, love is the characteristic of Islam."

Referring to the bombing, Imam Shaheed said, "The Koran forbids that type of incident. Islam is peace. We don't know what the situation really is, but if Muslims did this, if they are guilty, they will be punished in this life and . . . in the next life."

Tragic current events could not wipe out the essentially joyous character of the day, however. As Algerian native Mustafa Ikhlef, a Baltimore telecommunications technician, arrived with his family, he said, "There will be barbecues, toys for the kids. It is a little like Christmas."

Even during the preaching, young children cavorted happily -- though quietly -- behind their elders, who knelt facing the east in their stocking feet on broad strips of brown paper covering the armory floor.

After the morning service, there was a merry scramble to retrieve thousands of pairs of shoes lining the walls as family members and friends embraced warmly and exchanged greetings.

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