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Faith and fears as Muslims mark Ramadan

Many are united — in 'hatred toward America'

As the sun rose over mosque after mosque across the globe, the muezzins waited for their shadows to gather at their feet, then one by one climbed into minarets, picked up microphones or simply lifted their voices to issue their call:

"God is great! I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger. Come to prayers, come to salvation . . . "

As they do every week, hundreds of millions of people responded to that call Friday. From six continents they faced Mecca, the city where Islam was born, like the spokes of a giant wheel. They came wearing robes and sarongs or coats and ties, T-shirts and tracksuits or cloaks and head scarves. They bowed their heads and fell to their knees, then touched their foreheads to the ground, honoring the holiest day of the week in the holiest month of the year.

Reporters from The Associated Press visited mosques around the world Friday to take the pulse of the faithful at a time of upheaval in Islam. They found believers who, for all their cultural and geographical diversity, share an anger over Iraq and the Palestinians and a feeling that their religion is under threat from the West.

"Muslims are getting united now," said Mamdouh Habbal, a 61-year-lawyer attending prayers at Cairo's majestic Al-Azhar mosque. "Unfortunately, they're united in one thing: hatred toward America. Even an old man like me, it has hit me. And I've never known hatred my entire life."

Indeed, preachers and believers across the globe described a Muslim world of 1 billion believers under attack from threats both spiritual and worldly. They warned of decaying morals and declining traditions — and of what they called a U.S.-led campaign to tear Islam apart.

"What is happening now in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan is a war against Islam, a crusade, an old war in new clothing," Youssef Abu Sneineh said in his sermon to at least 150,000 people at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque.

In Qom, Iran, the preacher claimed fraud in the recent presidential election in neighboring Afghanistan, in which U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai is expected to win big, and the congregation chanted: "Death to America."

Mohammed Aslam, a 65-year-old retired school teacher, emerged from prayers in Islamabad, Pakistan, saying he prayed to God to forgive his sins, protect his family and unite Muslims.

Then he added: "I prayed that America be destroyed and Bush face defeat because he has unleashed oppression against Muslims everywhere in the world."

But a Muslim in the United States, 27-year-old Moroccan carpet layer Karim Nadi, wanted no part in prayers for death.

"Ramadan is not a time of anger or hatred; it's a time of hope and prayer," said Nadi, standing in the courtyard of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, a mosque a few miles north of where hijackers flew two planes into the World Trade Center's twin towers more than three years ago.

"My prayer is that the world will see us as we really are — a people of peace, and our religion as one of beauty," he said. "But with the Sept. 11 attacks, and all the killing going on in Iraq by so-called Muslims, it's not hard to see why so few here want to believe that Muslims are interested in anything other than shedding blood. We share nothing with those murderers, not even our religion."

In some countries, government-appointed clerics write a single speech to be read at all the country's mosques; others grant preachers varying degrees of independence.

The mosques are set in landscapes as varied as the people who attend them. An Australian mosque sat among suburban homes with manicured lawns, a Malaysian mosque between office towers of mirrored glass. A Libyan mosque is a converted Italian church. An Iraqi mosque is topped by Saddam Hussein-era minarets in the shape of assault rifles.

But the themes of the sermons everywhere were similar in essence, in part because they fell during Ramadan, the holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and religious reflection. Preachers appealed for greater observance of Islam's requirement to shun food, water, tobacco and sex during daylight hours, and to give to charity.

"Donate generously in Ramadan for the school; Allah will reward you," Abdul Haleem Qasmi told followers at his red-brick mosque in Islamabad.

Beggars crowded around many mosques, while impromptu markets sprang up selling everything from Qurans to perfume. "I wish Ramadan lasted two to three months. Then I'd be able to buy a car," joked Yusuf Mohammed, 56, a street vendor of prayer caps and beads outside Jamia Mosque in Nairobi, Kenya.

Preachers appealed to people to be better Muslims. At Blanchot mosque in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, El Hadji Rawane Mbaye told his followers to restrain every part of their body during Ramadan — their tongues from gossiping, their feet from leading them to sinful places.

"Fasting is not only about abstaining from eating or drinking. It's about healing your soul and seeking inner peace," Mbaye said.

Beneath the blue dome of the Pul-e Khishti mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saleh Ul-Rahman, wearing a flowing green robe and a yellow-and-white turban, was more blunt.

"Muslim brothers, when you see someone eating during the holy month of Ramadan, hit him on the mouth," he said.

Mbaye spoke Wolof, the Senegalese language, while sermons elsewhere across the globe were heard in English, Dari, Urdu, Arabic, Indonesian, Farsi and many others.

Many mosques avoided political sermons — because of government control, a desire to be inclusive or simply the preacher's preference.

"We are very neutral. We have to comply to English law," said Ahmed Al-Dubian, a Saudi who heads the London Central Mosque. "Radical Islam is allowed in the walls, because all are welcome here, but we do not preach it."

At the ancient al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, the preacher stuck to his uncontroversial script, but afterward more militant speakers tried to grab an audience among the worshippers, and police stepped in to take names.

"Grace be to Islam. Islam is coming," called a voice from the crowd. "We are all Saladin." He was referring to the 12th century Islamic warrior who drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem.

But elsewhere, most preachers waded into politics, at least asking their followers to pray for their brothers in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. There were few who didn't speak out against the war in Iraq, and fewer still who didn't condemn the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.