Torched mosque opens in time for holy month

Other faiths chipped in for the restoration.

By SHERRI DAY, Times Staff Writer
Published September 13, 2007

TAMPA - At the Islamic Education Center, the scent of fresh paint replaces the stench of acrid smoke. A new roof gleams in the afternoon sun. And a sparkling sign stands at its gates.

Inside, Dr. Akram Jawad worked feverishly Wednesday to put the final touches on the mosque, which burned in April at the hands of an arsonist.

Since July, Jawad, a retired pediatric surgeon who serves as the mosque's chairman, has kept a frenetic pace with a single goal in mind: to renovate the building in time for the first day of Ramadan, which began today at sunrise.

"Ramadan is a holy month," Jawad said of the period when Muslims around the world fast during daylight hours. "Every night we serve food for fasting people, and every night we have a program. We don't want to break the tradition. With the help of God, it was really completed at the right time."

Jawad has thought little of the arsonist who broke a window, threw gasoline inside and set fire to the building. Instead, he focused on rebuilding,aided by the kindness of strangers.

Mosque officials say they have spent about $48,000 so far to refurbish the building, which had smoke damage in every room. Two months ago, Jawad looked on as contractors ripped the burned ceiling from the main prayer room. On Wednesday, he proudly showed off the building's new textured ceiling, cushioned carpet and gleaming white walls.

Muslims, Christians, Jews and a host of others who contributed anonymously funded the restoration.

"Behind all the paint and the plaster, what's really impressive is that it was money from people in the community ... people of all faiths that contributed to renovating this place," said Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Tampa Chapter of the Council on American and Islamic Relations. "The people who worship there will never forget that."

After Ramadan, Jawad plans to invite the mosque's donors to tour the facility. But first, there is work to do.

He must tidy up before the crowds start to arrive this evening for the first of many iftars, or evening meals where Muslims break their fasts. Jawad expects the largest crowd Friday, when Muslims gather for weekly prayer.

Aside from refrigerators that still bear smudges of smoke, few signs of the fire remain. Later today, Jawad expects workers to haul away the construction Dumpster and leave behind a building that looks like new.

Jawad says he owes the progress to the kindness of strangers and to the mosque's neighbors, who let them borrow electricity to power fans and lights as they worshipped outside.

"With God's help and their support, this has been done," he said. "I am grateful."

Sherri Day can be reached at 813 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.