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Using history to find common roots

By Julia M. Scott
Jersey Journal staff writer
Monday, July 28, 2003

The Islamic Educational Center of North Hudson took its message to a new demographic yesterday: Latinos.

In a one-day celebration at the Union City center, Muslims and Latino converts sought to teach their neighbors, the vast majority of whom are Latino, about the Spanish Moors, who ruled Spain from the eighth century to the fifteenth century.

The Moors, who were Muslim, brought irrigation techniques, farming, and superior schools and hospitals to Spain, said Mariam Santos, who presented a slide show on the Moors in Spain.

Latino and Hispanic are terms used to describe primarily people in the United States who come from a Latin American country. Spain greatly influenced indigenous cultures after it conquered such places as Mexico, Cuba and Bolivia.

"We want them to know their Islamic roots and what Islam has brought to their culture," said Imam Mohamed Al Hayek, who is the spiritual leader of the congregation. Al Hayek estimated that there are about 250 Latino Muslims in Hudson County.

"We share so many things," said Al Hayek, who added that Spanish and Arabic have thousands of words in common.

The "Latinos Rediscovering their Roots" celebration included a keynote address by Omar Pacheco, who is an imam at a mosque in New York City. Pacheco was born in Spain, grew up in Argentina, and studied theology in Saudi Arabia.

He spurned his Catholic upbringing for the lack of answers the religion offered him and urged Latinos to look into their Muslim roots.

"We have to open our doors to educate people what Islam is about," said Alex Robayo, a Latino who converted seven years ago.

"It's needed today more than before," said Mariam Elayan, a member of the committee which welcomes people to the congregation. Elayan said that Muslims as a community are misunderstood by many Americans, especially after Sept. 11.

"It's long overdue," said Mary Ciuffitelli, 47, of the event. The Weehawken resident said educating the public about Islamic religion and culture was needed to win the war on terrorism.

A non-practicing Catholic, Ciuffitelli said she had studied Arabic in New York University's continuing education program and came across anti-Muslim stereotypes in her work as an EMT volunteer.

The center hosts open houses for non-Muslims to ask questions, as well as Arabic and English language classes, and classes on the meaning and memorization of the Koran. The three-floor center has five classrooms and two prayer rooms, both with diagonal lines running north-south so that people praying know which way is east.

"Everybody is responsible for their actions," said Elayan. "Nobody should be labeled to their religion."

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