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

The religious director of the Islamic Center of Riverside says he has “deep regrets” that the sermon he gave a month ago calling for violence against Israel caused alarm, but he stood by his decision not to make a public apology, leading a local rabbi to doubt his sincerity.

“People rushed to judgment and took this out of context. It was a few words in a half-hour talk,” Imam Mahmoud Harmoush told City News Service. “It was not meant to be harassment or encourage harm against our friends, Jews and other neighbors. It is not in my philosophy to go after people.”

On July 21, Harmoush delivered a sermon, using a mix of English and Arabic, in which he focused some of his comments on developments at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where Israeli security forces had implemented a lockdown days before in response to the shooting deaths of two police officers by three Arab gunmen.

Harmoush, who was hired as imam in April after heading the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley for years, implored his listeners to “Wake up! It is time to be a Muslim. Prayer is not the only thing.”

“Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and all the Muslim lands from the unjust tyrants and occupiers,” he said. “Allah, destroy them. Disperse them and rend them asunder. Turn them into booty in the hands of the Muslims.”

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.”

The imam told CNS he was engaging in “emotional outreach (to) denounce the occupation of the mosque.”

“There should not be collective punishment for the people out of revenge” for the police officers’ deaths, Harmoush said.

Israel relaxed security measures at the mosque within a couple of days.

“When you are delivering a speech, you are not monitoring every word and don’t know how it will be interpreted,” the imam said.

According to Harmoush, he was stirred to vehemence, in part, by passages from a book he’d read by Israeli author Avi Lipkin, “Return to Mecca,” which makes the case for Arabia being Jewish territory.

“I was not intending to offend anybody,” Harmoush said. “I have deep regrets for people misinterpreting what I said. But people heard what they wanted to hear. I have friends from different religious groups. We have so many commonalities. We are against evil and all the negative things.”

The Islamic Center of Riverside’s former religious director, Imam Mustafa Kuko, told CNS earlier this month that he believed Harmoush and the center’s Board of Governors should have immediately apologized for the sermon’s content — a sentiment echoed by Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus and others.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer of Temple Beth El told CNS Monday she was “very disappointed” in Harmoush’s continued refusal to make an unconditional apology.

“I realize there was a lot of anger about the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but frankly that doesn’t excuse his calling for violence,” Singer said. “He may say it was taken out of context, but the context for me makes it worse. Stealing land from Palestinians? Israel setting its sights on Mecca and Medina? He should say he understands what he said was wrong and make it clear it won’t happen again.”

The rabbi said she learned long ago to thoughtfully choose words and consider “how people will hear them.”

“As a spiritual leader of the community, he has a huge responsibility to be careful and make sure there are no misunderstandings,” Singer said.

In an effort to bridge the current divide, the city of Riverside’s Human Relations Commission is slated to host an interfaith forum with the Islamic Center of Riverside and other religious entities on Sept. 14 at the Canyon Crest Country Club. According to Harmoush, another forum is tentatively set for Dec. 16, but details were pending.

-City News Service

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