Unity outlasts division at Masjid Ikhlas amidst years of protests

Northglenn mosque works to build bridges in controversial times

Liam Adams
ladams@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 4/12/21

Masjid Ikhlas opened the doors of its two-story building in 1999. Through the mosque doors and up a short flight of stairs is a lobby with a rack to place shoes on. Turn left and through the hallway …

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Unity outlasts division at Masjid Ikhlas amidst years of protests

Northglenn mosque works to build bridges in controversial times

Posted

Masjid Ikhlas opened the doors of its two-story building in 1999.

Through the mosque doors and up a short flight of stairs is a lobby with a rack to place shoes on. Turn left and through the hallway is the entrance to a small library full of texts in Arabic and Farsi, an ode to some members’ Afghan heritage. Past the hallway is the men’s prayer room, blanketed by a gold and emerald carpet. Directly below is the women’s prayer hall with an identical carpet.

Pass through the basement hallway, but don’t miss a window in the wall where kids serve adults coffee from. At the end of the hallway is the kitchen area, a gathering space when there isn’t a global pandemic. It’s currently a storage area.

In the 20-plus years since the Northglenn mosque opened, its membership has grown to over 1,000 people, who are doctors, engineers and business owners in the community. The mosque has a youth group, a Sunday school and an after-school tutoring program to teach Quranic recitation and memorization. There are food drives open to anyone on weekends. Two COVID-19 vaccination clinics were there recently.

Masjid Ikhlas isn’t just a home for some community members, said board member Jamaluddin Amin. “It’s a psychological remedy.”

In many ways, the mosque is similar to other religious groups in the area. At an April 2 prayer service, members listened to a sermon on praying, reading scripture and fellowshipping with others during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began April 12.

Yet, one thing is different about Masjid Ikhlas: the Northglenn police officer guarding the entrance at prayer times. On and off for several years, a protester has visited the mosque. Earlier on, he debated people during open houses, which escalated to trespassing, a ticket for obstructing a sidewalk, a guilty verdict and appeal and, most recently, a letter asking for $9 million that led mosque leaders to meet with the FBI.

In the midst of this, the larger faith community has rallied to support the mosque and its outreach director, Ihsan Riahi, who believes now is not the time to withdraw from the larger community out of fear, but to reach out, “to connect, to build bridges.”

He joined the Northglenn homelessness task force, an Adams County faith leaders caucus organized by Together Colorado, a statewide community activist group, and Northglenn’s community co-production policing advisory board.

“I cannot just sit my butt on the couch and expect people to think I’m a good guy,” Riahi said. “If I don’t do it, I’m not going to wait for politicians to do it. I’m not going to wait for Fox News to do that. I’ll have to do it myself.”

The protester

“I’m a missionary,” said Richard Roy Blake. He started a ministry for persecuted Christians in Muslim countries and said he is a former investigative journalist, a book author and playwright. Besides Masjid Ikhlas, he also has protested at the Denver Islamic Society, where he was arrested and later convicted of disturbing the peace by a jury in Denver municipal court. The Denver Islamic Society has a restraining order against him.

Initially, Blake said he began attending the once-a-month open houses at Masjid Ikhlas in 2014 to find “allies” for his ministry before deciding that the mosque’s beliefs were extreme – a claim that mosque leadership outright rejects.

Blake began debating people at open houses or would protest in the parking lot, trying to dissuade people from going inside. Then, on March 4, 2017, Blake and three other men were protesting outside, waving white flags and holding up signs depicting Jesus, a police report said. An officer said they heard one protester shout, “Islam is not a religion.”

Riahi told police that the protesters tried to prevent cars from going into the parking lot. So, the outreach director declared the men as trespassing, meaning they would only be allowed on the adjacent sidewalk.

Blake said he was banned because the mosque didn’t like his opinions. “They couldn’t out-debate me and they couldn’t have me around,” he said.

Riahi flatly disputes that. According to the transcript of a later court trial, Riahi said, “It’s not a question of freedom of speech, that’s his right, his Constitutional right that I am for, no matter what. The problem was the fact was that he put people in endangerment, and he was harassing people in the name of free speech.”

Nevertheless, Blake told the mosque, “You throw me out and I will be on the sidewalk anytime I can.”

The situation escalated on July 17, 2017 when a neighbor contacted Riahi to say that Blake was bringing an armed militia to a protest, causing the mosque to call Northglenn PD for extra security that day, according to a police report. The mosque took it seriously because just before then, a man (who police said in a report wasn’t connected to Blake) drove by the mosque and brandished a machete through the window of his car, threatening to harm the mosque, according to Riahi and a police report.

No militia ultimately came, and Blake said he isn’t affiliated with one.

“This is the first I have heard about it,” Blake said when asked if he was affiliated with a militia. “I am totally independent except for my charity.”

A few months after, Masjid Ikhlas entered into a contract with Northglenn PD for off duty officers to provide security on Fridays, according to Northglenn Police Commander Ron Osgood. More recently, the department provided security at the COVID-19 vaccination clinics and it does extra patrol at the mosque every week.

Blake’s in-person protests came to a halt Jan. 4, 2020, when a Northglenn police officer ticketed him for obstructing a sidewalk. Riahi said he saw people walking onto the street to get around Blake. Blake contested the ticket, leading to a municipal court trial where a jury convicted him.

Currently, Blake is appealing the conviction in Adams County district court and he’s also suing Northglenn and NPD officers in U.S. district court. In the municipal court trial, Blake said he wouldn’t protest at the mosque anymore, according to a transcript. However, when asked if he would protest again if the conviction was overturned, Blake said, “Who knows. I guess we’ll see.”

The mosque’s most recent run-in with Blake was on Jan. 7, 2021, when he sent a letter threatening to sue the mosque and Riahi unless they paid him $9 million in 30 days.

Allies

In the years Blake was protesting Masjid Ikhlas and trying to dissuade people from meeting its members, partnerships between the mosque and local leaders were deepening.

Adams County Commissioner Emma Pinter first visited Masjid Ikhlas when it hosted an anti-hate forum after Nazi symbols appeared in Westminster in 2017. Pastor Wesley Dunbar of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Thornton took a youth group there once to learn about Islam. Patty Lawless, a statewide organizer with Together Colorado, met Riahi through the Adams County faith leaders caucus. Northglenn Mayor Meredith Leighty got to know Riahi more through his involvement with the city.

When Blake’s Jan. 7 letter came, Riahi shared with some of those people more about what was going on.

“Ihsan (Riahi) knows he can bring any concerns to the table and that he has a group of people that have his back and have the mosque’s back,” Lawless said.

Together Colorado mobilized, writing a petition that called on law enforcement to address the situation. “Their (Riahi and mosque) participation has been an invaluable contribution to our work for human dignity in Colorado,” read the document dated March 1.

It continued, “We … stand with the North Denver Islamic Center and wholeheartedly support the Mosque’s call for intervention by the appropriate law enforcement authorities to address this threat and ensure the wellbeing of not only their leadership, congregants and place of worship, but of all members of the community.”

Together Colorado circulated the petition among partners throughout Colorado, garnering 69 signatures from people in 19 different cities. Signatories included leaders of Christian, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and Latter-day Saints congregations. Leighty and Pinter also signed it. Pinter said the number of signatures, “is a credit to Ihsan and the mosque and their commitment to outreach.”

Leaders of the mosque have since met with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. Dunbar, who also attended the meeting with the FBI to present the Together Colorado petition, said he went that extra step because the mosque serves the community.

“They are a voice for reasonableness. They are a voice for faithfulness,” Dunbar said.

The petition is one of many examples where community members supported the mosque amidst Blake’s protests, Riahi said.  One time, patrons at a bar across the street stopped mid-drink to approach Blake and tell him to stop. Other times, people saw Blake protesting and decided to go to an open house, when they weren’t originally planning to.

Riahi said he had fruitful conversations with those who went against Blake’s advice. People who previously had misconceptions about Islam became more relaxed, a few have even shed tears, Riahi said.

“When they see more of what we have in common more than what we don’t agree on as far as religion is concerned, then that changes their mind. They become friends.”

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