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Open mosque intrigues, educates

The mosque was filled with non-Muslims.

A priest, in collar and blue shirt, from St. Mark's Episcopal in Carrollwood walked barefoot through the vast room with four parishioners.

Milli Hart, a retiree, tucked her white hair under the navy blue head scarf she brought from home. "I accept all religions," she said. "I just don't accept Osama."

For 25 years, the mosque has stood on the corner of Orient Road and Sligh Avenue.

Saturday was the first open house.

"Sept. 11 showed us how much we need to reach out into the community, how much we need to break fences," said Muhammad Sultan, director of the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area.

The open house had the feeling of a job fair, with informational displays, piles of pamphlets and talks given in front of rows of folding chairs every hour.

But this was something rarer: an opportunity to see inside the mosque.

Seffner resident Ada Rudeck said she has "driven past (the mosque) a hundred times" but never stopped. Saturday, she placed her shoes on the white wooden rack and walked through a different entrance than the men.

Women were offered head scarves.

"I like mine," said 11-year-old Kimberly Russell, the colors of the rainbow surrounding her little face. "I'm used to wearing hats."

The mosque on Sligh isn't ornate like the one President Bush visited in Washington, D.C.

This one looks more like an auditorium without seats. Walls are stark white. Only a thin border of Arabic writing adorns the rectangular room. "There is no God but God," it reads in Arabic. "He is the greatest, the most merciful and most high."

The carpet is deep maroon, soft and warm to bare feet, with straight gray lines so people know where to put their knees.

A lot of questions were asked and the people inside were prepared, wearing red ribbons and "Ask Me" name tags.

Do you believe in Jesus? (Yes, he is a prophet.)

When does Ramadan begin? (This week.)

What is Ramadan? (A month of fasting.)

"So you understand what it's like to be hungry," said Saleeth Lulu, a University of South Florida student with an "Ask Me" tag.

The most popular question was directed at the women: Why do you cover you head?

Anna Bennett explained that it was for modesty. She said Islam gave women the right to own property and the right to vote "long before women in America gained that right."

"What about the men," asked Linda Taylor. Why don't they cover their heads?

"They do dress modestly, too," Bennett said.

On a center table, hard- and soft-cover Korans were piled high, free for the taking.

"I'm fascinated by the similarities," said Hazel Karnig, an Episcopalian. "God is still God."

"I tried looking for a history of Islam after Sept. 11," said Lynn Grinnell. "I really wanted to learn more."

"I don't know that much about Islam," said Zasha Nguyen, a USF marketing senior. After wandering around the displays and listening to the talks, Nguyen said it "makes me think, what is this war about? Because it's not religion.' "

_ Babita Persaud can be reached at 226-3322 or persaudsptimes.com

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