New York — The organization that federal investigators say is a front for the Iranian government has spent millions of dollars over the years on philanthropy: buying property for four U.S. mosques, funding religious schools and language classes, and translating books on Islam.
The move to seize assets held by the New York-based Alavi Foundation will cripple the charity’s work and put the government in the awkward position of potentially shutting down the houses of worship, which occupy buildings and land that Alavi owns.
There are no claims of wrongdoing at the mosques. And they will stay open as prosecutors try to take hold of the hundreds of millions of dollars in Alavi money and property. The mosques were not mentioned by name, only listed by street address.
Still, the mosques and schools could be collateral damage in the case. On Friday, the government moved to cut off Alavi’s direct access to its money, according to court records.
Sabukta Chowdhury, a parent of a student at the Razi School, a K-12 school that is part of the Imam Ali Mosque in Queens, said her child would be upset if the school closed.
Abdulaziz Sachedina, a University of Virginia professor and expert on Shiite Islam, predicted the four Islamic centers in New York, Maryland, Texas and California would shut down without Alavi money.
Alavi was one of the few central sources of funding for American Shiite communities, which have far fewer resources than U.S. Sunnis. Often, the Islamic day schools the centers run are among the few available.
“Muslims aren’t used to membership fees,” said Sachedina, who has spoken several times at the mosque in Maryland. “In Muslim countries, most services are free, provided by rich people. Here, for the first time, Muslims are required to pay donations. It’s very hard to collect money from the people.”
The Islamic Education Center of Potomac, Md., reported on its Web site that it already had a budget deficit of more than $60,000 as of June.
As U.S. marshals posted forfeiture notices on the buildings, mosque leaders stressed that they are just the occupants of the properties.
“We are the tenant,” said Ghassan Elcheikhali, principal of the Razi School, standing before the forfeiture notice on the front door.
However, the Islamic centers and schools are deeply dependent on Alavi funding, according to tax records and the mosques’ own Web sites. That makes them more vulnerable if the foundation closes.
The New York charity started the Potomac mosque in 1981 and ran it directly until 1998, when the congregation and Islamic day school incorporated independently. However, the center pays Alavi nothing for use of the property and receives other support from the organization, according to 2007 tax records.
Alavi also lists among its assets furniture, computers, fixtures and other equipment at the four Islamic centers. All could be seized if the government case prevails. A leader of the Maryland mosque said his attorneys advised him not to comment Friday.
It is extremely rare for U.S. authorities to seize a house of worship.