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CAIR: US Seizure of 4 Mosques over Alleged Iran Ties Threatens Religious Freedom

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Federal prosecutors have moved to seize four mosques and a New York skyscraper belonging to a non-profit foundation with alleged financial ties to Iran. The Council on American-Islamic Relations warns that the seizure of places of worship may have First Amendment implications for the American Muslim community. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Federal prosecutors have moved to seize four mosques and a New York skyscraper belonging to a non-profit foundation with alleged financial ties to Iran. On Thursday, prosecutors in Manhattan began legal action seeking the forfeiture of more than $500 million in the assets of the Alavi Foundation, which describes itself as a charitable foundation.

US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, called the foundation a, quote, “front for the government of Iran.” He added, quote, “For two decades, the Alavi Foundation’s affairs have been directed by various Iranian officials, including Iranian ambassadors to the United Nations, in violation of a series of American laws,”

The complaint alleges that the Alavi Foundation illegally funneled millions of dollars in rental income back to Iran’s state-owned Bank Melli. It accuses the foundation of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, executive orders, and US Department of Treasury regulations.

Thursday’s action appears to be the latest move in an older case against the Alavi Foundation that began with a grand jury investigation last year.

AMY GOODMAN: The properties seized includes land in Virginia, a Manhattan office tower, and Islamic centers housing mosques and schools in New York City; Houston, Texas; Carmichael, California; and Rockville, Maryland.

The US attorney’s office say they don’t allege any wrongdoing on the part of tenants and occupants of the seized properties. But in a press release late Thursday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations warns the seizure of places of worship may have First Amendment implications for the American Muslim community.

Ibrahim Hooper is with us now, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! I mean, this is late breaking news. It was going down last night. We’re not far from the skyscraper that’s one of the targets owned by the Alavi Foundation. Talk about what you know.

IBRAHIM HOOPER: Well, the details of the case, I think, we’ll leave for the courts and for the lawyers. But what we’re concerned about is not so much the skyscraper, but we’re concerned about the seizure of American houses of worship. And whenever you’re having the government seize houses of worship, whether it’s mosques or churches or synagogues, I think that has a chilling effect on the First Amendment freedom of religion, and I think it’ll send a very negative message to the Muslim world. Can you imagine? And I’m already seeing them online, the headlines in Muslim media around the world, in the Arab world: you know, “US Government Seizes Mosques in America.” Whatever the details are — and again, you know, these things are going to be fought out for years in court. The headlines send a very negative message and a very chilling message in terms of religious freedom.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your understanding of the reputation of the foundation in the Muslim community?

IBRAHIM HOOPER: I just don’t have that much knowledge about the foundation. But what I’m concerned about, for example, I saw a headline this morning out of California: “Local Mosque Tied to Terror.” Now, there’s about fifty families at a mosque in the Sacramento area, have nothing to do with terrorism, have nothing to — they just go to the mosque, pray. They have their kids maybe learn Farsi or Arabic or Koran or whatever. But the headline is “Local Mosque Tied to Terror.” You know, it that legitimate? Is that something that the government wants to send as a message to the American Muslim community?

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of what has happened to Muslim charities in the United States, Ibrahim Hooper?

IBRAHIM HOOPER: Well, we’ve seen charity after charity shut down, the assets seized. You know, there’s really not a lot left in terms of institutions for charitable giving in the United States, given the eight years of the Bush administration. And, you know, quite frankly, we haven’t seen a great improvement under the Obama administration.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And have any of these charities been able to prevail in court against these seizures?

IBRAHIM HOOPER: Well, there was an Ohio charity that was able to prevail. Basically, the government came in and just administratively shut them down, seized their assets. And the judge, quite rightly, came back and said, “Look, you can’t just do that to people without giving them some kind of legal recourse.” So, you know, the case is moving forward.

AMY GOODMAN: The ACLU came out with a big report on charitable giving and the so-called war on terror, talking about this effect, this chilling effect in the United States. Ibrahim Hooper?

IBRAHIM HOOPER: And it was designed, I think, under the Bush administration to have a chilling effect. And, of course, it worked. When you shut down charitable organizations, accuse them of ties to terrorism, seize their assets, you know, it all is going to have the effect that’s intended.

AMY GOODMAN: The report said, which was called — and we’ll link to it on our website — “Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity,” saying that “U.S. terrorism financing policies and practices are seriously undermining American Muslims’ protected constitutional liberties and violating their fundamental human rights to freedom of religion, freedom of association, and freedom from discrimination.”

IBRAHIM HOOPER: Yes, and we’re seeing that every day, as people — you know, even if we have a campaign to distribute Korans to 100,000 American leaders — political, religious, media leaders — and, you know, we’ll have a table at the mosque, and people say, “Well, I’ll give you cash, because, you know, I just don’t want my name anywhere,” you know, because of these kinds of things.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ibrahim Hooper, after the mass killing at Fort Hood and now the announcement of the alleged shooter being tried and facing the death penalty, has there been a backlash against the Muslim community?

IBRAHIM HOOPER: Well, we had the police at our headquarters last night taking a report about death threats we’ve received. I mean, but, you know, as a civil rights group, you kind of come to expect those kinds of things.

But, you know, we had an incident in Florida, where a Greek Orthodox priest was beat up by a Marine reservist who claimed he shouted “Allahu akbar!” even though the Greek Orthodox priest doesn’t speak Arabic.

I just got a report yesterday of a Muslim schoolgirl in Texas. She had her work up on the wall with a photo of herself on the poster, and somebody defaced it with the word “terrorist” and an image of a gun pointing to her photograph.

A lot of hate emails, a lot of threats around the country. You know, it’s nothing on the scale, obviously, of the backlash that we saw after the 9/11 attacks, but I think the hate rhetoric that we’re seeing on right-wing talk radio and on the hate sites on the internet, I think it’s really pushing for some kind of backlash.

AMY GOODMAN: Ibrahim Hooper, I want to thank you very much for being with us, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Thank you for joining us.

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