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Councilors urge probe of land sale for mosque

Boston city councilors called yesterday for an investigation into why an Islamic group that is building a $22 million mosque in Roxbury was allowed to buy nearly 2 acres of city-owned land for only $175,000.

The council's Post Audit and Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on the sale of the parcel on Malcolm X Boulevard to the Islamic Society of Boston, a Cambridge-based group that has been accused of having ties to extremist Muslims.

''Why was the property sold far below what it could have fetched on the open market?" said Councilor Jerry P. McDermott, vice chairman of the Oversight Committee. ''If they can build a mosque for $22 million, why do they need to buy the property at a discount?"

The Boston Redevelopment Authority valued the land at $401,000, but with the backing of Mayor Thomas M. Menino and other public officials, the BRA allowed the Islamic Society to pay just $175,000. The society was asked to pay the remainder of the property's value in the form of benefits, including a lecture series, to Roxbury Community College. The society also agreed to maintain two nearby parks. The Oversight Committee chairman, Councilor James M. Kelly, said he wants to know whether the Islamic Society is teaching Muslim extremism, as some critics of the mosque say.

''I know there are Muslims who are very decent, hard-working people who are good citizens, and then there are Muslims who are absolutely extremists," Kelly said. ''We want to make sure that whatever is happening here does not involve that element of extremists, who have threatened this country. I make no allegations, but I want the opportunity to put to rest any suspicions that anyone in the public may have."

An order, to be filed in the council today, calls for representatives of the BRA, the city Law Department, and other city agencies to explain the land deal.

A Roxbury resident filed suit last week against the city and the Islamic Society of Boston, arguing that the city violated the constitutional separation of church and state by selling the land at a discount. City officials would not comment on the council order, citing the pending lawsuit.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself Citizens for Peace and Tolerance held a press conference yesterday raising questions about the group's ties and accusing it of fostering Muslim extremism.

The group also launched a website, hatefreeamerica.org, citing Boston Herald and Fox News reports that linked mosque leaders and founders to terrorist organizations.

''What we have is lots and lots of evidence, which needs to be explained or rebutted," said Steven Cohen, a Boston real estate developer who said he helped found the citizens group after reading reports in the Herald. ''Otherwise, if it looks like a duck, it's a duck. Over 20 years, many founders and leaders of the mosque have been associated with those views."

Leaders of the Islamic Society of Boston declined to answer specific questions about the charges, but issued a statement saying that the group has been inaccurately depicted in recent news reports.

''We believe that these stories have grossly misrepresented our organization, the work we have done in the community, and the positive relationships we have forged with people of all faiths and backgrounds throughout Greater Boston," the statement said. ''Nevertheless, the ISB carefully researched all the claims made in these reports and has addressed them thoroughly on our website: www.isboston.org.

On its website, the group denied connections to terrorists or extremists. ''We are disappointed that the Citizens for Peace and Tolerance have chosen to ignore our responses and, instead, decided to capitalize on the current political climate to promote fear and hysteria among the citizens of Greater Boston," the Islamic Society said in its statement. ''We believe anyone interested in honestly understanding the facts of this case would find that we are an organization that promotes peaceful coexistence with people of all faiths and from all walks of life, both in public and in private."

The statement invited the public to visit the group's offices and mosque in Cambridge.

''We are confident that such visits will help them realize the misleading nature of the claims made against ISB," the statement said. ''We urge the community of Greater Boston not to become a participant in the campaign of fear, hysteria, and hatred perpetuated by such claims."

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