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The Imam in Cleveland
Alleged Ties to Islamic Radicals Stir Debate over Cleric

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Jan. 18, 2002 -- For more than 10 years, Imam Fawaz Damra was among Cleveland's most respected religious leaders. The head of the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland attracted a congregation of 5,000 and built Ohio's biggest mosque. The 40-year-old Palestine immigrant became a leading advocate of cooperation among Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Imam Fawaz Damra

Imam Fawaz Damra.
Photo: NOW With Bill Moyers

But recent revelations tying Damra to the cause of radical Muslims have raised suspicions about the cleric among a growing number of people in Cleveland, including some fellow Muslims who tried to have him ousted from his mosque.

In a report for Morning Edition, NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams looks at the allegations against Damra and how perceptions of the cleric have changed. Williams will also report about Damra on NOW With Bill Moyers, a new television program premiering Friday night on PBS. The public affairs program is a collaboration with NPR.

The turnaround in perceptions about Damra began days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when a local television station ran a 1991 videotape of Damra at a public event soliciting money for the Islamic Jihad. "Directing all rifles at the first and last enemy of the Islamic nation and that is the sons of monkeys and pigs, the Jews," Damra said on the tape.

In his own defense, Damra notes that the tape is more than 10 years old, and says the words reflect a young Palestinian's anger at Israel. "I was terrified and horrified by the scenes over there," he says. "Nevertheless, I think those statements are indefensible and I regret saying what I said on that tape because that is not what my faith teaches me... My life has been transformed since then."

The Islamic Center

Damra heads the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland.
Photo courtesy Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland

As for his remarks about Jews, Damra tells Williams, "I was referring to the Israelis. I was not referring to all Jews... We all make foolish statements in our youth and in our ignorance... "

Adding to the controversy over Damra, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the federal government named Damra as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Damra says he led a New York mosque where people convicted of the bombing also worshiped, but he denies any involvement in the bombing.

Despite the allegations, Damra still has supporters in Cleveland's religious community. Warner Lang, pastor of the United Church of Christ, says: "I stand by my belief in him being a man of peace."

Previous NPR Coverage

Imam Fawaz Damra joined a Talk of the Nation discussion on American Muslims Nov. 15, 2001.

NPR Special Report: Muslims in America

Other Resources

The Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland

Islamic studies Web site supervised by Imam Fawaz Damra

Islam in the United States: a report from the U.S. State Department.