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COVER STORY : Between Two Worlds : Shiites Have Quietly Found Their Niche in Central L.A. While Preserving Muslim Culture


It is Saturday night and once again Ali Elyaszadeh has traveled 40 miles from his Fountain Valley home to the Azzahra Islamic Center in South Gate to pray.

Inside, 50 Shiite men are removing their shoes, greeting one another with handshakes, the traditional greeting Salaam aleikum --Peace be upon you--and settling onto rows of mats. A lecture follows prayers and a dinner of roasted chicken, rice with dill, lima beans and yogurt. Veiled in the hijab, or covering, women view the evening's program on a television set from the other side of an olive-green curtain, following Islamic law that they pray separately or behind the men.

"In Islam, group prayer is highly recommended," said the Iranian native Elyaszadeh, who brings six Iraqi friends from Long Beach to the Saturday programs at the Azzahra center. "If two pray together, the value of this prayer is 150 times as great as if each prayed alone." By the time you pass 10, the value is so great no one can count it."

Although largely unknown amid the area's larger African-American, Latino and Asian communities, Shiite Muslims have been quietly establishing a religious heart in Central Los Angeles for nearly two decades. Every week, dozens flock from throughout Southern California to Islamic centers in South Gate, Bell, Cudahy, Pico Rivera, Watts, Inglewood and Koreatown, sites chosen for their inexpensive property values and their central location for worshipers primarily from Los Angeles and Orange counties.

While relatively small in numbers--there are roughly 30,000 Shiites in Southern California, about 10% of the area's Muslim population--they have established a strong presence in their respective communities.

Some are on a first-name basis with city leaders. Others have joined commissions and worked amid their neighbors, with one Shiite leader in Watts playing an instrumental role in forging the ongoing truce between the Bloods and the Crips. Still others have established businesses and are planning to open Islamic schools.

Yet much about these diverse people remains shrouded from the public.

Indeed, Shiite leaders say they are trying to preserve a centuries-old faith that the West has long misconstrued as terror-prone and oppressive toward women. When tensions flare up in the Middle East, they say, a backlash of harassment and resentment often follows.

"We give dignity for all the children of Adam," said Sayed Mortada Qazweeni, religious scholar at the Azzahra Islamic Center. "We respect everybody's rights, even those who are not Muslim. This is one of the most important messages of Islam."

Shiite Muslims, who represent about 20% of the world's 1 billion Muslims, differ from their vastly more numerous Sunni Muslim counterparts in the belief that Islam has had 12 true religious leaders, or imams, appointed by Allah.

Each of the imams that Shiites believe were descended from the Prophet Mohammed, who died in AD 632, were persecuted for their beliefs, instilling a sense of resistance against oppressors that is central to the Shiite identity today, Qazweeni said. Many local Shiites said they have come to this country because of political and religious persecution in their homelands.

Those in Central Los Angeles and neighboring southeast cities have come from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China, among other places.

Muslim leaders are uncertain how many Shiites are in Central Los Angeles, especially given the numbers of African-Americans and Latinos who have accepted the Shiite brand of Islam.

About 60 Shiite Lebanese families--some 300 people--have settled in Bell since the mid-1970s, opening an Islamic center on Gage Avenue and setting up retail clothing outlets in Huntington Park and Downtown Los Angeles.

Cudahy's 13-year-old Jafaria Islamic Society hall, the oldest and largest of the local Shiite centers, draws more than 1,000 worshipers during the holy month of Ramadan--the ninth month of the lunar calendar--and other holidays, leaders say. Ramadan, a period of daily fasting and celebration, marks the divine revelations of spiritual doctrine to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel.

Shiites say their faith is peace-loving, a message they have had some success in spreading among their neighbors.

Mujahid Abdul-Karim, religious leader of Masjid Al-Rasul, a Watts Islamic center, has preached Islam's teaching of "respect for the self and others" among South Los Angeles youths for more than a decade.

Abdul-Karim helped bring together Bloods and Crips from the Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs housing projects last spring to discuss a truce that they verbally agreed to on April 26, three days before the not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating and the riots that followed.

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