Imam Mohammed Qatanani greets his supporters outside the Peter Rodino Federal Office Building in Newark last June after testifying in his deportation trial.
Photo by Walter Ruby
September 11, 2008
A Paterson imam cleared on immigration charges praised several officials and Jewish religious leaders who testified on his behalf at his trial.
A U.S. Immigration Court judge in Newark dismissed charges against Imam Mohammed Qatanani on Sept. 4, rejecting government claims that the cleric failed to disclose information about a prior arrest and conviction in Israel for allegedly being a member of Hamas.
Qatanani denied being a member of Hamas, a group classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, and said he was never notified of the charges against him nor was he convicted of anything during his three-month detention in Israel in 1993.
In an interview with New Jersey Jewish News, Qatanani asserted that his friendship with one of his defenders, Rabbi David Senter of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes, is “a great example of how people of faith can live and stand together. It’s a role model that should be followed.”
The Nablus-born Qatanani moved to Paterson in 1994 and became head imam of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, New Jersey’s largest mosque, several years later. The decision means that Qatanani, his wife, and their three foreign-born children are granted legal permanent U.S. residency and will eventually be eligible for American citizenship. The imam and his wife also have two children who were born after his arrival in the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security has not yet said whether it will appeal immigration Judge Alberto J. Riefkohl’s ruling.
Throughout the trial, Qatanani earned the support of religious and municipal leaders and law enforcement officials, who praised his community outreach following the 9/11 attacks.
U.S. attorney Christopher Christie, speaking at an annual Ramadan break-fast dinner at ICPC the night before Riefkohl announced his decision, praised the cleric.
“My view is he’s always had a very good relationship with us, and he’s a man of great goodwill,” said Christie, before embracing Qatanani and wishing him well.
Qatanani told NJJN he also had a warm exchange with Gov. Jon Corzine when he visited the official residence in Princeton on Sept. 6 for a Ramadan Iftar observance. “The governor congratulated me and said he was happy with result of the trial,” said Qatanani, who, according to his spokesman, Aref Assaf, met privately with the governor, together with several of the imam’s supporters, before the main event.
Corzine spokesman Robert Corrales e-mailed a statement to NJJN on Sept. 9.
“Gov. Corzine deeply respects Imam Muhammad Qatanani for his leadership and commitment to his community and congregation,” it read. “The imam has worked tirelessly to promote unity, peace, and respect for people of all faiths. The governor does not believe it is appropriate to rush to judgment and continues to be supportive of the imam.”
Qatanani said he was “not surprised” by the judge’s decision.
“I was confident in the justice of our case and always believed that the American justice system is fair and honest,” he said. “Our victory proves to the members of my community that justice can be obtained by any person in this society regardless of religion or national origin. This result will show our community that our work of opening doors to elected officials and law enforcement officials and to churches and synagogues was the correct course.”
During his court testimony about his detention in Israel, Qatanani described being tied to a chair with his hands bound, kept in a freezing cell, and subjected to starvation, violence, and threats.
Amos Guiora, a former Israel military judge in the West Bank and Gaza and now a law professor at the University of Utah, also testified at the trial. He did not confirm Qatanani’s account of his treatment but did not dispute that some of those methods mentioned by Qatanani were routinely used in the questioning of Palestinian detainees before being outlawed by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1996.
Qatanani said, “I hope that the coverage of my testimony in the media will give all people, including my friends in the Jewish community, the message that such treatment of any human being is unacceptable and must be opposed. No nation can achieve security by jailing and torturing people.”
The Israeli consulate in New York declined all comment on Qatanani’s remarks.
Anti-terrorism researcher Steven Emerson, who has written articles denouncing Qatanani for alleged ties to Hamas and has called for his deportation, was highly critical of the judge’s decision.
“I think it’s a disgrace and an act of pure political corruption,” he said, that Corzine, Christie, Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8), and the FBI special agent in charge “intervened to help Qatanani during the legal process of the deportation proceedings.
“I know for certain that Christie and the FBI SAC had access to information about Qatanani’s background, involvement with and support of Hamas,” said Emerson.
Emerson charged that statements and actions by Christie, Corzine, and Pascrell in the Qatanani case “betrayed U.S. national security interests, and I call upon Congress to hold hearings immediately.”
In an interview with NJJN, Christie acknowledged the “paradox” of his offering praise for Qatanani while another branch of the U.S. government involved in law enforcement was doing its best to have the cleric deported.
“Yes, there is an apparent paradox, but these are two different branches of the U.S. government,” said Christie. “My office is not involved in the immigration dispute.”
Christie said his comments at the annual Ramadan dinner, delivered before the judge’s decision, “were in no way a commentary on the dispute between the imam and DHS.”
Rather, he said, “they were a reflection of my office’s experience with the imam over the past seven years. After I came in, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were looking to have a dialogue with the Muslim community, and we found Imam Qatanani to be a constructive force in attempting to strengthen our relations with that community.”
Christie noted that Charles McKenna, an assistant attorney in his office, was called to testify during Qatanani’s trial and stated that the imam has cooperated closely with law enforcement officials.
Responses from local Jewish community leaders were decidedly less heated than Emerson’s.
“I don’t think this decision is bad for the Jews as long as Qatanani is a good guy and promoting peace, as a number of grassroots leaders say he has,” said Allyson Gall, NJ area director of the American Jewish Committee. “The court has made a decision and we have to abide by it.”
Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein, chair of intergroup affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey, said the decision was “good for all Americans, including our own community, when people who are accused are given an opportunity to go before an impartial judge and present evidence.”
Senter, who once lived in an Israeli West Bank settlement, said he disagrees with Qatanani on many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but agrees with an adage attributed to Moshe Dayan: “You make peace by talking with your enemies, not with your friends.”
“What happened was that in the course of four years of talking to each other, this man truly became my friend,” said Senter.
He added, “I am gratified that the imam and I were able to model a relationship that showed people in New Jersey, and hopefully in the Middle East as well, that it is possible for Jews and Muslims to coexist.”