Imam Mahmoud Harmoush
Imam Mahmoud Harmoush. Photo: YouTube/Islamic Center of Riverside

A longtime religious leader in the Islamic community has criticized a fellow imam’s sermon calling for violence against Jews, saying that the expression is unrepresentative and should be disavowed by the Islamic Center of Riverside.

However, the board of directors of the Islamic Center of Riverside is standing by its imam after his call for violence that included the plea referencing Jews, “Oh, Allah, destroy them.”

But another imam wasn’t supportive.

“I’m disturbed by what was said,” Imam Mustafa Kuko told City News Service. “For me, it’s very much disturbing. With so much turmoil in the world, we need to harmonize relations and engage in good outreach.”

Kuko, who was principal imam at the Islamic Center of Riverside for 17 years before he was let go in December 2015, said he watched the entire YouTube video containing the July 21 sermon by Imam Mahmoud Harmoush, who delivered “the wrong message.”

“I have been told by some of the members that he was somewhat — a little bit — out of control, wanting to show sympathy for our Palestinian brothers,” Kuko said. “The people are commanded to listen, so sermons should have a good take-home message. You don’t want to talk about so many sensitive issues. By way of tradition, we speak of social life and community. You must have understanding and be careful.”

Harmoush, who has been religious leader at the Islamic Center since April and before that headed the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley, structured his talk around events at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where on July 14 two Israeli police officers were gunned down by three Arab terrorists, later shot to death by Israeli security forces while trying to take refuge in the mosque, which abuts the Western Wall, among the holiest sites in Judaism.

The officers’ killings prompted increased security measures, including screening machines at the mosque’s entrances. Worshipers rioted in response.

In his sermon, Harmoush accused Jews of plotting to take over Palestinian-controlled territory, the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and “most of the Middle East.”

“Oh, Allah, liberate the Al Aqsa Mosque and all the Muslim lands from the unjust tyrants and the occupiers,” Harmoush said in Arabic, according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute. “Oh, Allah, destroy them, they are no match for you. Oh, Allah, disperse them and rend them asunder. Turn them into booty in the hands of the Muslims.”

Kuko said the transcript was “100 percent accurate.”

“He was using very strong words that were a little bit irresponsible and disturbing,” Kuko told CNS.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer of Temple Beth El said Monday that Harmoush’s behavior threatened to undermine the “strong relationship” that the synagogue had established with the Islamic Center and area Muslim community over several decades.

Singer joined Kuko in a meeting with the center’s board Monday, seeking an official apology, but none was forthcoming.

“Imam Harmoush focused on roundly condemned Israeli actions, which curtailed freedom of worship … at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound,” according to a statement released by the Islamic Center after the meeting. “While the situation at the mosque has since changed, when the sermon was offered, the mosque was closed to prayers … It was Imam Harmoush’s intent to shed light on the situation.”

The board promised to arrange an interfaith forum to promote understanding.

“I was not surprised by their position,” Kuko said. “They don’t have the courage or will to say, `Hey, this is what happened, and we apologize.’ They should have said something stronger and disavowed (Harmoush’s) statements. But they appeared to be in defensive mode.”

Kuko said the individuals governing the center are the same ones being sued in Riverside County Superior Court by two former directors and several hundred others, who allege they were arbitrarily stripped of their membership in May 2015 to ensure specific results in board elections.

Riverside City Councilman Mike Soubirous told CNS Wednesday that he was “very sad” the center’s governing body chose not to make amends.

“Our community is trying to build cohesiveness and find common ground,” he said. “This takes us backward. Preaching this kind of hate against a specific group cannot be overlooked, nor should it be tolerated by our society.”

Mary Figueroa, who served on the city of Riverside’s Human Relations Commission for years, told CNS that “emotionally charged” issues like the current one should not be cast aside and ignored.

“Doesn’t it really dive into the whole notion of tolerance and social inclusion?” Figueroa said. “When comments like this are made, we should take on the challenge of trying to clarify them, or understand the meaning. Let’s catch it before it violates that all-important commandment of `Thou shalt not kill.”‘

She hoped the commission would “acknowledge” the conflict and get involved.

–City News Service

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