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Columbia Missourian

Twenty years of worship

By LIZ MITCHELL
September 4, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT

Islamic center celebrates its diversity

Through faith and diversity, Muslims from around the world have remained united at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri. The center, located in downtown Columbia, celebrates its 20th anniversary today, Friday and Sunday.

When it opened in 1983, the Islamic Center at Fifth and Locust streets served fewer than five families. Most of the Muslims in Columbia then were single college students.

Since then, the city’s Islamic community has changed in structure and makeup. Now, about 1,500 Muslims — including between 200 and 300 families — worship, study and celebrate at the center. They come from 26 countries.

The center was built not only to serve Columbia-area Muslims, but to be a teaching tool about Islam and to bridge the cultural gap between Islam and other faiths.

“There is a big difference between then and now, locally,” said Ali Bagegni, Imam (prayer leader) of the Islamic center. “There is still a lot of people who unfortunately don’t know about Islam, or if they know, they have a distorted picture.”

Bagegni, who has lived in Columbia since 1979, encourages everyone to visit the Islamic center, to see what it is like and to talk with its members.

“The more familiar people are, the less ignorance and intolerance there is,” Bagegni said. “If you don’t know something, you are afraid.”

Over the last year, Dustin and Kathryn Hurst converted to Islam. Kathryn Hurst had been a religious studies major and was introduced to Islam through a course at MU. They both began to visit the mosque and to meet its members, deciding finally to convert from Christianity.

Dustin Hurst, who moved four years ago from Savannah, about 15 miles north of St. Joseph, said the Islamic community in Columbia is noticeably open. “I never even knew until after converting that there was a mosque in St. Joe,” Hurst said. “Here the mosque is right downtown. You see Muslims pretty much all over town, on campus, in the hospitals.”

Both Bagegni and Rashed Nizam, president of the Islamic center, said the center has been a positive for the city from the start. Located in the downtown area near Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, it helped to beautify the city. Even following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, or what Nizam refers to as the “crisis time,” the community expressed support and friendship by visiting the center, sending letters or bringing flowers.

“That’s because they have a clear understanding of Islam — those are people who know who and what we are,” Nizam said.

The Islamic Center gets many visits from students and professors at MU. The center’s members work to educate non-Muslims, law enforcement officers, journalists and hospital caregivers.

“We are here to help our community,” Nizam said, “and we will continue to do our job to be more sincere to God, our families, our community and our nation as a whole.”

To Bagegni, the 20th anniversary holds personal and global meaning.

“It is a reminder to continue this mission by providing services to the Muslim community and also to continue the journey to work harder and build a bridge with non-Muslims, and increase their understanding of Muslims,” Bagegni said. “The Islamic center should be a place where every American can visit.”

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