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Imam departures spark pushback, calls to reinstate them

 (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)
(Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)

Protesters outside the South Nepean Muslim Community (SNMC) mosque last week called for the reinstatement of longtime Imam Zijad Delic, whose departure has caught members by surprise. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Members of a Nepean mosque are calling for the reinstatement of their longtime imam, one of two Ottawa spiritual leaders who've recently left their mosques under hazy circumstances.

On Friday, about 25 people waved signs and wore "Bring Back Imam Zijad!" t-shirts outside the fenced entrance of South Nepean Muslim Community (SNMC) while a steady line of worshippers strode past to attend noon-hour prayers.

The demonstrators were there to support former imam Zijad Delic, whose leadership dated to the days before SNMC opened its Woodroffe Avenue mosque more than a decade ago.

Ahmad Masoom said while protesting that Delic's departure was announced with little detail or fanfare last month during morning prayers, which aren't as well attended as Friday noon-hour sessions.

"Whatever the reasons [for Delic leaving] are, we are not aware," Masoom said, adding that attempts to get clarity from the mosque's board of directors have gone nowhere.

SNMC Mosque February 9, 2024
SNMC Mosque February 9, 2024

An online petition is also calling for Delic's reinstatement. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

The imam at the Ottawa Mosque also left recently.

"They didn't give any reasons," Masoom said of that west-of-downtown mosque's decision to part ways with Muhammad Suliman late last year. "That's why the community sentiments are really hurt."

The exits of Delic and Suliman have both sparked online petitions pushing for them to be reinstated, along with calls for greater transparency from the boards governing the mosques.

Both imams have declined to speak to CBC, with Delic saying he is legally prohibited from doing so.

Community's welfare 'paramount concern'

Suliman was hired by the Ottawa Muslim Association as imam of the Ottawa Mosque in 2020.

The association told members in a statement late last year that the board's decision to terminate Suliman's contract was considered over many months and not reached lightly.

"While we cannot delve into specific details … we want to assure you that our paramount concern is the welfare of our community and its spiritual home," the association said.

The association declined an interview at the time but said in an emailed statement that it was "an internal matter that is being solved quickly."

While SNMC has not issued any formal statement online to its members about Delic, it has posted about the hiring of a new interim imam, said Abdallah Bayaa, who was also protesting outside the mosque Friday.

"A lot of us don't exactly know what's going on," Bayaa said. "What we do know is that he was removed from his position. This is a well-known imam, well-respected within the community, and here for a long time."

The paucity of information will lead to "a narrative that is not accurate," Bayaa said, adding that it was the board's responsibility to "address the community which they serve."

Zijad Delic (centre) National Executive Director of the Canadian Islamic Congress, talks to reporters as Sameer Zuberi (left) Communications Coordinator, Canadian Council on American-Islamic relations and Roche Tasse of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group look on during a news conference on the Omar Khadr case in Ottawa, Wednesday  March 26, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Delic, seen here in 2008, declined to comment on why he and SNMC parted ways. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Delic supporter Nazira Tareen said she was at the protest because she feels SNMC's rules about who can vote to elect board members are too restrictive.

Under the mosque's bylaws, members who volunteer 100 hours and donate $240 a year are eligible to vote.

"I'm 84. I cannot do 100 hours of volunteer work," Tareen said. "They have to change the bylaw."

SNMC Mosque February 9, 2024
SNMC Mosque February 9, 2024

Nazira Tareen, at centre wearing the black hat, said she attended the protest outside the SNMC mosque both in support of Delic and because she says the mosque needs to open up its pool of voting members. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

SNMC declined to be interviewed or comment at length on Delic's departure on the advice of lawyers.

The mosque added in a statement to CBC that it's a welcoming religious institution with members of other faith groups taking part in some programs.

"With that much diversity, it is normal to have differences. We respect the right of people to express their views," the mosque stated.

A sign posted to the mosque's front doors on Friday asked members to "express their opinions peacefully outside the mosque property" and warned that displaying banners and symbols inside "will not be tolerated."

sign on front door of SNMC Mosque February 9 2023
sign on front door of SNMC Mosque February 9 2023

This sign on the front doors of the SNMC mosque on Friday warned against political demonstrations inside the building. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

'A time of heightened emotions'

Delic and Suliman's leavings have come amid the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Back in December, Suliman's imam residence featured a "Pray for Palestine" sign on its front lawn.

The Ottawa Muslim Association's statement to members did not refer to the conflict specifically, but stated that "as this was a time of heightened emotions for us all, the council of trustees decided to wait and speak from a place of calm."

The association told CBC that Suliman's termination had nothing to do with any political matter "internationally or domestically." Rather, they said they were "looking for an employee with more skills in certain areas."

"The imam is a well-spoken leader in the community and has not stepped out of line," the association said.

Several security vehicles were parked outside the Ottawa Mosque when Ijaz Ahmad Khattana went there to pray during noon hour on Dec. 15.

He said that was not normal and that the lack of information about Suliman's exit was frustrating.

Samir Farhat, another prayer, echoed that feeling.

"I think they should be more open," he said of the association.