By Paula J. Owen TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
Here we can say Asalaam and blessings of God. There you would be punished in prison.
— Farida Mehmud, WIFE OF BASHIR U. MEHMUD
FITCHBURG — As afternoon approaches at the Ahmadiyya mosque on Main Street, Bashir U. Mehmud and his wife, Farida Mehmud, prepare for their daily hourlong session of midday prayer.
Five times each day the couple perform ritual cleaning of their hands, faces and feet before praying.
The couple moved to the United States in 1977 from their native Pakistan, where they were persecuted and could have been imprisoned for their beliefs, they said.
Though Ahmadis are Muslim, they differ from mainstream Muslims over some doctrinal issues. Mr. Mehmud said that in 1984, the prime minister of Pakistan declared the sect non-Muslim and said they were not recognized as Muslims under the law. The Pakistani government banned Ahmadis from proselytizing and identifying themselves as Muslims and from making the call to prayer as other Muslims do. If they did, they would be imprisoned, Mr. Mehmud said.
Mr. Mehmud, 70, president of the Fitchburg chapter of the international Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, said that despite persecution, the sect is growing in Pakistan, with an estimated 2 million to 5 million Ahmadis living there and tens of millions of followers worldwide. It is also growing in the United States, he said. About seven years ago, Fitchburg’s chapter branched off from Boston’s, he said, when it became too large.
“Nowadays it is too hard to practice in Pakistan,” said his wife, dressed in the traditional Muslim hijab at the mosque. “There is a lot of persecution, especially for our community, and there is discrimination in schools and colleges. It is a very hard time. You can’t practice. You can’t even greet anybody. Here we can say Asalaam and blessings of God. There you would be punished in prison.”
Mrs. Mehmud said one friend in Pakistan was sent to prison for seven years for writing prayers in the name of Allah.
Moreover, Sunni conservatives ostracize them, the couple said, and Sunni extremists have made Ahmadis the target of violence, along with Shiites.
Mr. Mehmud’s son Furqan Q. Mehmud, 30, was born in the United States and lives in Fitchburg.
The Fitchburg State University graduate, who works for an armored transport company, is waiting for his fiancée to come to the United States from Pakistan. He visited her there in August.
He said he was very disturbed by Taliban attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2010. Militants armed with grenades, high-powered rifles and suicide vests descended on the mosque as Friday prayers ended, taking hostages. Ultimately, 86 people were killed.
“It did have a big impact on our family,” Furqan Mehmud said. “We look at them as our brothers and sisters. Why didn’t the police take immediate action? Now, we have to basically arm ourselves over there, too.”
He said that in Pakistan in August when he visited a mosque in Jhelum, he would knock on the door and be searched by armed guards.
“They body-pat you,” he said. “We have to keep our own security. The police do their part, but there is always a delay in their actions. It is a whole different scenario than here in the U.S. Over there, they have to check everybody and safeguard the mosque.”
He said he is concerned about his fiancée, who will not get an interview for her visa for another few months, but believes she is safe because she mostly stays at home caring for her ailing mother.
“Over there they cannot do the call to prayer,” he said. “Other Muslims do it openly, but they cannot do that. They can’t have conventions and don’t meet or pray openly. She (his fiancée) stays at home most of the time and it is not well known that she is part of the Ahmadi community. She prays at home.”
He said that when she arrives in the U.S. for their marriage, he will breathe a sigh of relief.
Furqan’s father explained that the Ahmadis differ from other sects in that they believe their founder was a savior sent by God — the promised messiah — and is the metaphorical second advent of Jesus Christ. The idea is considered anti-Muslim by many fundamentalist Islamists. Ahmadis also believe Jesus survived the crucifixion on the cross and traveled to India, where he lived to age 120.
The Ahmadis grew from an Islamic reformist movement in British India near the end of the 19th century, Mr. Mehmud said, originating with the life and teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who has had four successors. At the core of their beliefs is “love for all and hatred for none,” he said.
Ahmadis also believe that God sent Ahmad, like Jesus, to end religious wars, condemn bloodshed and reinstitute morality, justice and peace, Mr. Mehmud said. Ahmadis reject terrorism, instead waging a bloodless, intellectual “jihad of the pen” in place of an aggressive “jihad by the sword” that they say has no place in Islam.
Ahmadis were among the earliest Muslim communities to arrive in Western countries, and theirs was the first American-Muslim organization, he said.
Fazal A. Ahmad, 76, has been going to Fitchburg’s Ahmadi mosque since it opened. The retired engineer turned Vermont sheep farmer said he was always interested in religions, but was drawn to Ahmadiyya because the messiah linked his beliefs to Abraham in the Bible and to Jewish and Catholic religions.
“With any religion with sects that are separated by country boundaries in the Middle East, usually the smallest sect is the one most correct,” Mr. Ahmad said. “The most pious perished at the hands of larger sects because they wouldn’t go along with it. It has been repeated over and over. For me, it was the right thing.”
He said Ahmad’s fifth successor, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, is living in England because his followers fear he could be assassinated.
“It is the first Muslim organization that printed a paper in the U.S. and was able to propagate the religion,” Mr. Ahmad said. “We are all missionaries. We don’t want to just keep it for ourselves. We want to share it. We would never attack anybody for being ‘wrong.’
“In the world today, some people have a negative feeling and distrust about Islam. If they knew about it and our people and come get free information from us and study it, we can hopefully give them something in life they didn’t have.”