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Hispanics Turn to Islam

The Jersey Journal
September 29, 2005

Came seeking peace, says convert

It was obvious that Pedro Fernandez was nervous as he stood next to Imam Mohammad Al-Hayek, in front of more than 100 Muslims and those considering conversion to Islam.

Fernandez was about to make his profession of faith or Shahada. He was repeating after Al-Hayek, who said "You will repeat after me in Arabic." Fernandez unclear about what to recite, said "You will repeat after me in Arabic."

Then Al-Hayek told him again that he would say his profession in Arabic. Fernandez finally got it and repeated the Arabic words slowly.

Then Alex Robayo came forward and translated that profession into Spanish and Fernandez repeated those words in his native language.

Many in the assembly listened intently because they spoke Spanish and were at the North Hudson Islamic Center for its third annual Hispanic Muslim Day on Sunday afternoon.

And the grounds of the center, on Cottage Place off 47th Street between Bergenline Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard in Union City were bustling inside and outside with tables where people could receive free information or buy some items.

All the tables were filled with mostly Hispanic men and women along with members of the Islamic Center. They were munching on generous snacks and refreshments and listening to speakers and watching a play put on by children.

Around 4 p.m. many went upstairs to the mosque on the second floor for Fernandez's profession and then greeted him one by one as a sign of welcome.

"I felt a calling from Allah," said the Cuban native, who was baptized Catholic and became a born-again Christian in 2000, about his conversion to Islam.

Three years ago he came to the mosque searching for peace in his life and then returned several times this past year before deciding to make his profession. He is currently on disability and confided that he is bipolar, but added that since he found Islam, "I am feeling a lot better."

And he's not alone. Al-Hayek estimates that since 1996, when he came to the center, more than 1,000 people, many Hispanic, have made a profession of faith.

Initially he didn't keep records but does now. On average 500 people come to pray on Friday evenings, with about 100 members very active the rest of the time, said Al-Hayek. Their Hispanic day also builds each year, with hundreds coming through the center.

Robayo, from North Bergen, was one of them. The 29-year-old engineer began to inquire about other denominations when he was a 21-year-old student at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.

"I found a lot of logic in Islam and the Koran (their holy book)," said the former Catholic who now teaches physics at East Rutherford High School.

He has become very active at the center and takes pride in convincing other Hispanics to become Muslim.

He even invited his parents, with whom he still lives, to come to the Hispanic Day, and they did. But they have no desire to convert, said his mother Isabel Robayo, 59, who described herself as a charismatic Catholic. She simply came to show support for her son. His father, Segundo Robayo, 61, traces his son's disenchantment with Catholicism to a time when Alex told a Catholic priest he wanted to learn more about the Bible.

According to Segundo, the priest told his son, "I don't know anything about the Bible."

Segundo shook his head, implying that was the wrong way to deal with his son. When someone Christian converts to Islam, the profession of faith is amended and a line is added, "I bear witness today that Jesus Christ was a prophet of God."

Al-Hayek said that line is added so that the new convert realizes that Jesus Christ is not God but simply one of his many messengers, like Mohammad.

And the Muslims of the Islamic Educational Center of North Hudson have a message for the many Hispanics of the area: Islam welcomes them.

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