Monday, November 9, 2009

A New Mosque in Nicaragua Fires Up the Rumor Mill

With just 300 or so Muslims in all of Nicaragua, it became an instant mystery here when a big new mosque suddenly seemed to spring up recently in a residential neighborhood.

Like, who paid for it?

The ever-present Managua rumor mill quickly turned to the government of Iran.

Its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Muslim, and Nicaragua's leftist leader, Daniel Ortega, a Catholic, say they share a revolutionary kinship.

As part of a grandiose effort to show that Iran is a global superpower, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his government promised in 2007 and 2008 to invest up to $1 billion in this impoverished country of 5.7 million, including a new city and deep-water port in a remote jungle on the Atlantic Coast.

Never mind that local Nicaraguan officials say they haven't heard a word on the port project ever since an Iranian-led delegation was confronted 18 months ago by angry villagers. Or that virtually none of the other announced investments have materialized.

The geopolitical chatter surrounding the gold-domed mosque, which opened in September after more than a year of construction, continues. "Did Iran put up the money? That's the question everyone asks," says Ismat Khatib, a native Nicaraguan lawyer and businessman who is of Palestinian descent. One Managua-based diplomat says it is believed Iran subsidized it.

But Mr. Khatib, who is treasurer of the Nicaraguan Islamic Cultural Association, which oversees the mosque, insists that the Iranian government contributed not a single córdoba. In fact, he says the only thing it actually promised to donate was a large, special rug for the mosque's prayer room -- and that it never arrived.

"This is the real version," says Mr. Khatib. "You can end the mystery with this."

Not quite. Speculation also surrounds who has been praying at the mosque, or la mezquita, which offers services five times a day, beginning at 4:30 a.m.

"All the Taliban," declares William Martinez, a 24-year-old barber at Le Moustache, a hair salon across the street. Natalie Melendez, a clerk at the Veo Veo video-rental store on the corner, offers a different account. "There are two types of people who use the mosque," she says, matter-of-factly. "The Arabs and the Iranians."

Muslims, particularly Palestinians, have been emigrating to Nicaragua for decades and have established a number of businesses here, especially in the fabric trade.

But because their numbers are so small, their faith remains foreign to most Nicaraguans, who are largely Catholic or evangelical Christian. Many here refer to all Muslims or Middle Easterners as Turks, and seem to know next to nothing about their religious beliefs.

"They pray to the god of the moon so they only gather at night," says Ms. Melendez.

In an interview, Fahmi M. Hassan, a Palestinian fabric merchant and president of the Islamic cultural association, sought to dispel some of the myths surrounding the new mosque, which he says cost about $600,000.

Mr. Hassan -- who says Nicaragua's Muslims mostly are transplanted Palestinians, Jordanians and Pakistanis -- scoffs at rumors that Iran paid for the mosque.

He says the Iranian Embassy in Managua angered the Muslim community here when it tried about a year ago to compete with his Islamic association by creating a similar entity with a nearly identical name -- the Nicaraguan Islamic Cultural Center.

Read more here,,,,

Source: WSJ

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