In a Chino mosque, Ahmadis can worship freely

Chino, USA - During the last days of Ramadan, Ahmad Chaudhry Nuruddin shut himself inside a small cubicle at the Bait ul Hameed Mosque with only a mattress, a chair and a few religious books.

The slightly stooped 79-year-old strung a white sheet over the entrance to perfect his isolation.

For the next few days, Nuruddin would follow the Islamic custom of I'tikaf, in which believers become virtual hermits, secluding themselves from the world to focus on the divine.

"You spend your time remembering that God Almighty has created the world for the benefit of its people," he said. "He created the sun, the moon, the planets, the vegetables and fruits, and he sends the waters so people can enjoy those fruits."

Educated, kindly and broad-minded, Nuruddin seems the very embodiment of a religious man.

But back home in Pakistan, he says, he can't even call himself a Muslim without fear of prison, harassment or death.

"We are not allowed to say our prayers openly," said Nuruddin, who was visiting from Lahore. "We can't call our mosque a mosque."

The palatial 27,000-square-foot mosque in Chino is one of the biggest in Southern California and serves about 800 people belonging to the Ahmadiyya sect.

The sect ran afoul of mainstream Islam in the late 19th century by proclaiming founder Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as the long-awaited Messiah destined to be the "reformer of the age."

Traditional Islam holds that Muhammad was the last in the line of holy prophets.

In 1974, the Pakistani parliament, persuaded by orthodox clerics, declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. Ten years later it adopted an ordinance forbidding them from practicing some of the most basic elements of Islam including the call to prayer, citation of the Koran and recitation of the Kalimah, the defining phrase of Islam, which states that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his prophet. Violators face up to three years in jail and a fine.

Amnesty International says Ahmadis have been slain in Pakistan for their faith with little or no effort by the government to protect them or to find the killers.

Pakistan denies this, saying perpetrators of violence have been arrested and that intolerance toward religious minorities is not tolerated.

"The Ahmadi beliefs are in absolute contravention to Muslim beliefs, but everyone has equal rights of worship in Pakistan," said Nadeem Kiani, spokesman for the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington. "There are some people who try to incite sectarian violence from time to time to carry out their own agendas, but as far as the government and 99% of the general public are concerned, there are no problems with Ahmadis."

He did say, however, that members of the sect should identify themselves as Ahmadis and not Muslims.

Ahmadis say that denies their identity.

"In this country, you have complete freedom to worship," said Imam Shamshad Nasir, the spiritual leader of the Chino mosque. "How can we have all this freedom in a Christian country but no Muslim countries offer the same kind of freedom?"

Shamshad served as a missionary in Ghana and Sierra Leone and bubbles over with enthusiasm for his faith. He writes newspaper columns in English and Urdu, speaks at interfaith gatherings and has a weekly radio segment. "Understanding Islam"airs Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. on KCAA-AM (1050).

"We represent Islamic teachings for the modern man -- old tea in new cups," he said, sitting in his tidy, book-lined office.

"The founder of our sect said jihad means to struggle for a good cause, not to kill unbelievers," he said. "We believe you should be loyal to your country, obey the authorities wherever you are. You should respect humanity regardless of race, color or religion and deal with the needy and the poor."

The Ahmadi credo is "Love for all, hate for none."

Still, people protest the sect.

A group of Muslims in New York put an advertisement in a Pakistani newspaper urging co-religionists to be on guard against Shamshad and his columns.

"He is deceiving people," they wrote. "He is Ahmadiyya and he is not a Muslim. . . . Don't ask him any questions, and ignore his answers."

But local religious leaders are loath to declare members of the sect non-Muslims.

Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization of mosques, said the sect shouldn't be persecuted.

"If they have the same beliefs as all Muslims in the oneness of God and the finality of the prophet Muhammad, then they are Muslims," he said. "And if they don't subscribe to that, they are entitled to hold to what they believe is right but cannot be considered part of the mainstream Muslim community."

He quickly noted: "I will not say they are not Muslims. I will not judge them for what they are and what they are not."

Ahmadis tend to be highly educated. They claim a 99% literacy rate in Pakistan.

At Friday prayers in Chino recently, about 220 men, including doctors, engineers, lawyers and scientists, crowded into a carpeted room listening to Shamshad's sermon. (The women, who are similarly accomplished, are kept strictly separate.)

Pakistan's only Nobel Prize winner, physicist Abdus Salam, was an Ahmadi who moved to Europe. His son-in-law, Dr. Hamid Rahman, is a member of the Chino mosque and an orthopedic surgeon.

He said there are at least 3,000 Ahmadis in California.

When the prayers ended, Naser Noor emerged to put on his shoes. The 39-year-old Rancho Cucamonga banker is originally from the city of Peshawar, a bastion of Islamic militancy.

"You never revealed your faith or it could blow up on you," he said. "When I went back in 2008, it was totally intimidating."

A video posted on YouTube shows what appear to be police standing by as a group of men uses chisels and paint to remove Arabic and Koranic phrases from an Ahmadi mosque in the east-central city of Faisalabad. Meanwhile, distraught Ahmadis prostrate themselves in tearful prayer.

Such incidents have caused many to feel a deep sense of estrangement from their homeland.

"When I heard about the law making us non-Muslims, I felt I was no longer from Pakistan," said Anwer Khan, general secretary of the mosque. "I don't hate it because I am from there, but I lost my love for my country."

Still, he says, he has hope.

"We have 15,500 mosques all over the world. We opened 123 mosques this year. So who is winning?" he said.

"Hatred always loses. Love always wins."