They don’t have a prayer.
The leader of a Kensington mosque stole more than $300,000 from members before storming the Islamic center with hired guards last month and barring worshippers from daily prayers, congregants claimed at a Dec. 1 protest outside the local religious institution.
“He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Maruf Alam, who worships at Masjid Nur al-Islam. “This guy came in with a private security force and changed the locks.”
A large crowd of parishioners and reps from other local Islamic-faith-based centers rallied outside the Church Avenue mosque between Chester Avenue and Story Street eight days after Imam Gauhar Ahmed and his private security allegedly seized the building and prohibited members from using it as a place for their five-times-per-day prayers.
Worshippers shouting “He is a criminal” while carrying signs that declared “A thief can’t be a religious leader” at one point clashed with Imam Ahmed’s security during the demonstration, before protestors charged the imam with a laundry list of crimes he allegedly perpetrated against his hapless flock.
The congregants claimed their once-beloved religious leader turned against them sometime after the 2008 financial crisis, when he started pushing a plan to expand the mosque as a scheme to collect members’ donations — which he actually spent on several Michigan properties for himself, according to another worshipper, who described the imam’s actions as crimes against Islam.
“This is not Islam. Islam is never stealing money,” said Khandaker Ahmed.
The parishioners said they filed a lawsuit in Civil Supreme Court upon realizing their leader was ripping them off, but claimed that they ultimately decided to show him mercy, agreeing to drop the case on the condition he step down as the mosque’s head on Aug. 8, Alam said.
But after his legal troubles cleared, the imam filed false documents with the city’s Department of Finance, parishioners claimed, and portrayed himself as the mosque’s current president in order to gain ownership of the property, which he then invaded with his security force on Thanksgiving day before changing its locks.
The religious leader’s coup devastated local worshippers, according to Alam, who called it “outrageous.”
“He portrayed himself as a spiritual leader and did this maleficence to the community,” he said. “It took folks a while to understand it.”
Imam Ahmed adamantly defended himself when reached for comment, claiming that the people who rallied outside his mosque weren’t actually congregants, but a hodgepodge of protesters organized by a more radical group of Muslims on a mission to defame him and win over his parishioners.
“They’re not a part of our religious understanding,” he said. “They’re an extreme version of Islam.”
Alam vehemently refuted the imam’s accusations of radicalization, however, calling him “sick” for smearing an entire community in order to salvage his reputation.
“That’s the card he’s playing, the radical card? You’re talking about hundreds of people and they’re radical, but you’re a saint?” he said. “When someone makes a comment like that, it’s sick.”
A Supreme Court judge actually granted a restraining order that Masjid Nur al-Islam honchos filed in 2015 against Imam Ahmed’s then-accusers — who included Khandaker Ahmed, as well as another speaker at the rally, Simon Mahmud, and 13 others — which prevented them from acting as mosque leaders and harassing congregants.
The imam refuted his opponents’ claims on a point-by-point basis, beginning with the Michigan purchases, which he said the mosque’s board of directors, executive board, and members approved, voting in favor of opening the out-of-state sister location to further the house of worship’s religious and charitable missions.
And he admitted he agreed to step down in August if his critics dropped their lawsuit — even though he claimed the suit was frivolous and that his accusers actually blackmailed him into giving up his leadership position, although he declined to say how.
But his critics did not keep their end of the bargain and filed the suit, Imam Ahmed said, so he never abdicated from managing the mosque, and any allegations of a hostile takeover are just lies meant to besmirch him.
“They never withdrew the case, so I maintained management of the property,” he said.
Imam Ahmed said he hired the guards he arrived with on Thanksgiving day to shoo away squatters who refused to leave the mosque, and that the building will be closed for daily prayer until around Christmas to accommodate plumbing repairs at the property.