By: Suzanne Ma
Frigid winds blew as hail pelted down on a crowd of about 50 people gathered on the steps of the Bronx Supreme Court Wednesday to protest the sale of a Bronx property housing their mosque.
“I notice that the weather is getting worse but we don’t care because we’re here for a righteous cause,” said William Martin, a lawyer representing the worshippers of the Futa Islamic Center. “We think that justice need be done and there’s no reason why justice can’t be done.”
The worshippers were shivering in puffy jackets and snug winter hats, but they stood outside for nearly an hour as community leaders and the mosque’s imam took turns speaking about the real estate mess they’ve been trying to make sense of since March.
“We have no place to go,” Imam Baba Diallo said. “For over 10 years we’re trying to put money together to get this one building so we can worship together. And now they want to take it away from us.”
The Futa Islamic Center, located at 3400 Third Ave. in the Bronx, has been sold to real estate firm BX Third Avenue Associates. Members of the mosque took the firm to court in September and lost. Justice Howard Silver ruled that the sale of the land was fair. But worshippers, mostly immigrants from the West African country of Guinea, charge that the ruling was culturally insensitive and judicially incompetent. BX Third Avenue Associates could not be reached for comment.
The two-storey building on the corner of Third Ave. and E 166 St. was purchased in 2002 for $345,000 by the Futa Islamic Center, then known as Masjid (meaning mosque) Al Faysal, and listed in tax return records and credit line mortgage certificates as a non-profit religious organization.
Diallo said the community raised $1 million for renovations and the mosque officially opened for worship in 2006. But in March of this year, Diallo said he was blind-sided when a member of the mosque came across an ad in a local newspaper auctioning off the property.
The Bank of New York – the entity holding the mortgage – put the land up for sale because the mosque had failed to pay city property tax. The bank had also mistaken “Masjid Al Faysal” for a person. Unable to track “Masjid Al Faysal” down, the mortgage was foreclosed.
Diallo said a quick look at the mosque’s public records would have enabled the bank to contact him directly. And, while he knew religious organizations were exempt from paying federal taxes, he said he wasn’t aware he owed tax dollars to the city. When he saw the ad in the paper, Diallo said he immediately paid $7,500 in taxes for the 2007 fiscal year. What he didn’t know was that he owed nearly $20,000 more for the years since the property was purchased. The sale went ahead. BX Third Avenue Associates purchased the building for $500,000, Diallo said.
Mamadou Sadio Bah, a 40-year-old real estate broker from Queens, was at the rally yesterday. He travels to the Bronx mosque every Friday with his wife and four children.
“They work really hard, the entire Guinea community with $1, $10, $100, $500 a month to get this building,” he said.
Before the mosque opened in 2006, Bah said the community had nowhere to hold important religious ceremonies, like a funeral.
When “someone passes away in the community we have to go sit down in a two-bedroom apartment,” he said.
“The bottom line is we need help from anybody, whether you are Christian, you are Jew, you are Buddha, whatever. We need your help to get this property back. We can’t afford to lose it.”