WORCESTER — Hamid Mahmood, the spiritual leader of the region’s Muslim community, has stepped down as imam of the Worcester Islamic Center and returned to his homeland of Pakistan.
Tahir Ali, a spokesman for the center, said Imam Mahmood, who had been at the center since 1999, had been talking about returning home for several months and apparently decided not to seek an extension on his expiring visa.
“I know there was a problem with the visa and he decided not to do anything about it because he wanted to go home anyway,” Mr. Ali said.
The imam and his wife and five children left Sunday.
Some area Muslims expressed concerns this week after the Web edition of the Daily Times, a newspaper based in Lajore, Pakistan, reported that the imam and his family were deported by federal immigration authorities because of “immigration regulation infringements.”
The report, they said, appeared credible because of the legal difficulties facing Hafiz Muhammed Masood, the imam at the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon.
According to Mr. Ali and others, Imam Masood is the brother of Imam Mahmood.
Imam Masood was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in late 2006 on visa fraud charges.
Federal authorities charged that Imam Masood and others across the country were part of a scheme to provide religious worker visas for immigrants working secular jobs.
Imam Masood was released on $7,500 bond and the case is still pending.
Mr. Ali said much of the Daily Times report was incorrect.
“If the imam were being deported, he and his family would have been arrested and escorted by agents directly to the plane,” he said. “That did not happen.”
Federal officials, including officials with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Office of Homeland Security and the U.S. attorney’s office, did not return calls for comment.
“There’s been a lot of half-truths about what happened to our imam in Worcester,” Mr. Ali said. “A lot of it has to do with miscommunication. What is true is that he is gone and we don’t expect him to return. He will be missed.”
Mr. Ali said Imam Mahmood’s departure leaves a void at the center.
The imam, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Punjab University in Pakistan, is credited with getting local Muslims involved with other religious groups in the area and of preaching a message of tolerance.
Christian, Jewish and other religious groups frequently visited the local Islamic Center.
“It was important to let these people (members of other religions) know what Islam is really about and that Muslims are not fanatics,” the imam said in an interview published in the Telegram & Gazette on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The imam said all religions share the same concerns, and “everybody wants better relationships.”
Mr. Ali said he’s not sure if the center’s trustees will seek to bring on another imam.
Unlike other religions, a cleric is not necessarily needed to lead Muslims in prayers and services.
An imam is a respected Islamic scholar, with an extensive understanding of the religion.
It’s unclear how many Muslims live in Central Massachusetts; adherents of the Prophet Muhammad settled in Worcester about 100 years ago.
About 200 families regularly attend the local mosque, which was built on East Mountain Street in 2005.