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Bowing to Mecca from Caracas.

That familiar Muslim call to prayer, a trademark of Middle Eastern capitals from Baghdad to Beirut, will soon be heard throughout downtown Caracas - from atop the largest mosque ever built in Latin America. The Mezquita Ibrahim bin Abdul-Aziz Ibrahimi, named after the wealthy Saudi philanthropist backing the project, is located on busy Avenida Libertador, across from the headquarters of CANTV, Venezuela's national phone company.

Once the mosque is completed in December, more than 10,000 Muslims will fit in its sprawling sanctuary, and tourists of all religions will be able to visit the imposing landmark. Its minaret alone measures 100 meters - the height of a 20-story building. Hassan Majzoub, president of the Centro Islamico de Venezuela, says the Caracas mosque is even bigger than Sao Paulo's 30-year-old Mezquita del Estado, currently South America's largest.

A Palestinian shopkeeper who came to Venezuela in 1970, Majzoub estimates the country now has about 200,000 Muslims - mainly Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian immigrants like himself, with a sprinkling of East Indian Muslims from Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago. "If you include Christian Arabs, the number goes up to 500,000," he said, adding that "nearly all the Arabs here are clothing and furniture merchants." In addition, Venezuela has two prominent politicians of Arab origin: Henry Ramos Alub of Accion Democratica and Douglas Dager of the opposition COPEI party.

As a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Venezuela maintains excellent ties with the Arab world and as a result, boasts a large Arab diplomatic community. "Venezuela is a democratic country," Majzoub said. "We've never had problems with freedom of religion. The Muslims here aren't fanatics. We're very modern."

The religious leader estimated the Muslim population of Caracas at around 15,000, with other important communities in Valencia, Maracaibo, Tigre and Isla Margarita. There are six Islamic centers in the country offering beginning classes in Arabic and Koran, including one located along a quiet street in the Caracas suburb of El Paraiso.

But the new Mezquita Ibrahim bin Abdul-Aziz Ibrahimi, built on the pattern of mosques in Saudi Arabia, dwarfs them all. Designed by Caracas architect Oscar Brancho with the help of Maria Luisa Fernandez, a specialist in Islamic art and history at Simon Bolivar University, the mosque is being constructed on a 5,000-square-meter plot of government land leased to the Muslim community for 99 years. When finished, it will include areas for cultural, social and sporting events, educational training and medical services, as well as religious functions. Later on, a "madrasa," or Islamic school, is to be added. And like all mosques, its "qibla" wall faces toward the holy city of Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.

Visiting Mecca at least once in a lifetime is among the five requirements of Islam. The other four are profession of faith in Allah; praying five times a day: fasting during daylight hour throughout the month of Ramadan, and donating a portion of one's income to charity - a practice known in Arabic as "zakat." Charity is, in fact, paying for this mosque. Cost estimates for the Saudi-financed project - three years in the making - range from $5 million to $10 million, though precise figures are hard to come by.

Majzoub said that originally, "we were going to put the mosque on Avenida Baralt in the center of town, but our plans changed." The new location is just down the street from the Caracas Hilton and is so convenient, the Caracas Metro runs literally right beneath the mosque.

Interestingly, at its entrance is an ecumenical work of art that predates the mosque itself: a large marble monolith with a bronze bas-relief depicting the crescent of Islam, a Cedar of Lebanon and a Star of David, with the inscription "Por La Paz Mundial. "

Mazjoub said that eventually, the mosque will become a center of learning and religion for Muslims throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, but that will take time. In the beginning, he predicted, "between 400 and 500 people will go to the mosque regularly. If we get 500 a week, we'll be happy."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Caracas, Venezuela; Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Words:678
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