U.S.-Backed Imam Gets Cool Reception in India; Many Muslims Skeptical of Mission

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Byline: Shaikh Azizur RahmanTHE WASHINGTON TIMES

CALCUTTA - A speaking tour by the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University has exposed a conundrum for the State Department's public diplomacy program: The mere fact that the visit was sponsored by the Bush administration left many Indian Muslims unreceptive to the message.

The chaplain, Imam Yahya Hendi, was in India for three days late last week to debunk myths about the status and treatment of Muslims in America, much as he has done in State Department-sponsored trips to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

The visit, arranged by Karen Hughes' two-year-old public diplomacy office at the State Department, did produce successes. Imam Hendi was welcomed at a few schools and mosques, and led a mass prayer attended by 15,000 worshippers at a Calcutta mosque.

But several Muslim leaders contacted in advance by U.S. diplomats refused to have anything to do with the visit.

"At our mosque the imam wanted to lead a mass prayer and interact with the people," said Hyder Ali, a spokesman for the Baitul Aman Mosque, the largest in West Bengal. "But we turned down the request .. because he was acting on behalf of a government which for long years has been responsible for killings and sufferings of innocent Muslims in many countries including Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. We did not want to betray our brothers and sisters in those countries by extending him hospitality in our mosque."

Nur-ur Rahman Barkati, the chief of another prominent Calcutta mosque, said he would be pleased to allow Imam Hendi to conduct a prayer at his mosque had the American been on a "purely religious mission, with no connection with America's foreign diplomacy."

"He is a Muslim he is our brother. But we could not take him in our arms because he was here as a representative of the American government and George Bush the enemies of Islam and the world's Muslims," he said.

The disdain for the U.S. government extended to many of those who attended the mass prayer in Calcutta's Sola Ana Mosque.

"We took part in this .. prayer only because we knew an American imam would conduct it. Had we known that he was sent by the American government we would have never dreamed of standing behind him on this prayer," said Rifat Hossain, a 21-year-old student. …