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Johnstown imam ousted over 'death' remarks

| Thursday, May 10, 2007

Imam Fouad ElBayly has been asked to step down from his leadership roles at the Islamic Center of Johnstown, based on his comments published by the Tribune-Review.

ElBayly, who came to the United States from his native Egypt in 1976, expressed his views on apostasy -- abandoning one's religious belief -- during an interview prior to Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali's appearance April 17 at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.

He indicated that in the eyes of the Islamic community, a sentence of death would be warranted for Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee, women's rights advocate and atheist who has denounced the Islamic religion, criticized the practice around the world of female genital mutilation and spoken out against her Muslim upbringing.

ElBayly, who tried to block Hirsi Ali's campus appearance, said her attacks on the Muslim faith were "poisonous." He did not threaten her, but explained that "all of her lies" warrant a death sentence.

"The board and members of the Islamic Center of Johnstown were shocked and regret the comments made by Imam ElBayly regarding the visit of author Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The statements regarding the Islamic Center's reaction to her visit were incorrect, unfounded and not the views of its members," Dennis J. Stofko, the center's attorney, said in a letter to the Tribune-Review.

Stofko indicated that ElBayly's views "are not shared or tolerated by the Muslims" associated with the Johnstown center.

"The Islamic Center of Johnstown was established to foster religious tolerance, education and the exercise of its religious beliefs," Stofko wrote, adding that members "strongly believe in exercising religious freedom, which is the right of all citizens. The Islamic Center of Johnstown sincerely respects the rights of individuals to speak their opinions openly and freely without the fear of reprisal."

ElBayly was not at home yesterday afternoon and could not be reached for comment, according to a man who answered his phone and identified himself as ElBayly's brother. He declined to discuss whether ElBayly had been paid for his work as imam and president of the center.

Prior to his removal, ElBayly led a community that he described as an active core of about 30 families and a number of others who attend occasional services and programs. He said he tried unsuccessfully to convince university officials to cancel Hirsi Ali's lecture because he feared her presence would incite violence.

He described the Muslim faith as "a very merciful religion if you try to understand it."

"I'm trying to control my people here," he said then. "I don't want people to get hot and cause trouble."

In the days after ElBayly's comments appeared in the newspaper, the Tribune-Review received numerous phone calls and e-mails from readers across the country who were outraged by what they perceived as his threatening remarks, some calling for his arrest and prosecution.

About a week later, ElBayly apologized for his comments on apostasy in a letter to the editor.

"... I have come to realize that I was mistaken in my understanding of that issue. I misspoke, and I apologize," he wrote. "After further deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that a person's religious choices are a personal matter and should not be subject to state or individual intervention."

A call to the Stofko Law Offices in Johnstown was not returned late yesterday afternoon.

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