At 75, Jan Sepulveda, a Roman Catholic, stepped foot in a mosque for the first time in her life Wednesday.
She took off her shoes, wrapped a black scarf around her head, and entered the Masjid Darul Qur'an mosque in Bay Shore while an imam prayed in Arabic.
"I hate bigotry," Sepulveda said in an interview. "I want to know more about people who are different from me."
The Bay Shore resident was among about 150 people at an event yesterday that was part of a "week of dialogue" involving mosques on Long Island, in New York City and elsewhere around the country aimed at dispelling stereotypes about Islam.
The mosques are holding the sessions to explain the faith to the non-Muslim public, condemn terrorism and build bridges. Events include tours of mosques, lectures, prayer sessions, question-and-answer periods, and traditional meals.
Mosque leaders in Bay Shore said Muslims feel under siege since the controversy over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero erupted, and they want the backlash to end.
"We are going through a difficult time," Dr. Hafiz Rehman, a local pediatrician who helped lead the event, told the crowd. Then he paused, as his eyes welled.
"It's important you realize we are part of the landscape of America," Rehman said. "We are here as good citizens. There's been a bit too much stereotyping. Our children at school at times are a little worried and afraid, and we want this to come to an end."
He added people must differentiate between the "99.9 percent of mainstream Muslims" and the ".1 percent" of extremists. "They don't belong to us," he said. "They hijacked the planes and they also hijacked the religion."
Wednesday, the entrance at the mosque in Bay Shore was decorated with red, white and blue balloons, as if to underscore the congregation's allegiance to the United States. The sanctuary was visited by politicians, ministers, community leaders and ordinary citizens.
Rehman explained some of the basic practices of the faith, such as the removal of shoes in the sanctuary, the separation of males and females into different areas during prayer, and the five times a day that observant Muslims pray.
Rabbi Steven Moss, head of the Islip Town Anti-Bias Task Force, told the crowd fighting bias will be a never-ending battle, but there are signs of hope. Moss, who serves as rabbi at the B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, recalled a Thanksgiving interfaith service in Oakdale held just after the 9/11 attacks. Prayers were said in Arabic and Hebrew, and at the end Muslims, Christians and Jews walked out arm in arm.
Islip High School student Staci Palacino, 17, said she thought Wednesday's event was "pretty cool. I like learning about different cultures."
Sepulveda said she found the prayer service similar in some ways to her own Catholic practices. "We need to know more about each other so that we can get along," she said.
Islam on Long Island
Long Island is home to about 70,000 Muslims, two dozen mosques and two full-time Islamic schools.
- Muslims worship one God, Allah, and revere the Prophet Muhammad, who founded Islam.
- Segregated by gender, Muslims pray on rugs, part of the time sitting, kneeling and prostrating or stretching themselves forward as they touch their foreheads to the ground.
- The faith dictates they pray five times a day at set times.
- Islam strictly prohibits premarital sex and drinking alcohol.
- Women commonly cover their hair with scarves and their bodies with loosefitting robes to avoid drawing attention from the opposite sex.
SOURCES: Long Island Muslim leaders