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AN ENDEAVOR IN FAITH <br> MUSLIMS HOPE TO REBUILD MOSQUE

It took eight long years and tens of thousands of dollars to refurbish a once-grand old church at Sobieski and Sycamore streets on Buffalo's East Side, but the local Muslim community did it.

Now it will have to do it again, as soon as its members finish sifting through the charred remains from an accidental fire that devasted their mosque, just when a $200,000 restoration was so close to being finished.

"Last Thursday, we had the final inspection," Ibrahim Memon, the mosque's imam, or congregational leader, said as he watched Tuesday's cleanup by volunteers. "Then (Monday) night we were standing here watching it get destroyed again."

The mosque did not have insurance.

For the Muslim community, Monday's fire at Masjid-e-Zakariya, 182 Sobieski St., was the equivalent of the old saying "When it rains, it pours."

Though the fire was ruled an accident, it's an anxious time for many Muslims across the nation, who have been fearful of a backlash against Islam since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Also, the loss of the mosque comes so close to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan -- the lunar month during which Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad -- when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk and frequent their place of worship.

And complete renovation of the former Holy Mother of the Rosary Cathedral was so close to being done.

The Polish National Catholic Church sold the vacant building in 1993 to Darul Uloom Al Madania, a nonprofit religious organization that turned it into a mosque and school.

Since 1993, the building's interior received a new paint job, new pillars were put in place, walls were tiled, and a new wooden staircase and mezzanine were installed.

Tuesday, the sky peeked through holes in the ceiling and roof, where the fire did the most damage. The workers were gripped by the smell of smoke as they sifted through broken glass and carted away waterlogged carpeting.

"It's like our blood in there. That's how much we put into it," said Waqas Khawaja, 18, who was dragging a soggy rug from the mosque.

"We were just about to put the new carpeting in and we'd be all set," said a disappointed Zain Gheewala, 17.

But they're thankful no one was hurt and relieved it wasn't arson.

A plumber was working with a torch in the rear of the mosque when a fire started in wall insulation. He tried to put it out, but the blaze quickly spread through the ceiling, fire officials said.

No one at the mosque Tuesday was placing blame. Instead, Khawaja, Gheewala and a few dozen others -- some as young as 7 -- showed up early Tuesday ready for the cleanup.

Others said it was a test.

"Throughout the history of Islam, there's always hardship. It's about facing that hardship, dealing with it and maintaining a relationship with Allah, no matter what," said Ameer Eilenfeldt, 25, one of the volunteers.

Local Muslim leaders will assess the damage and figure out what to do next, said Dr. Khalid J. Qazi, president of the local American Muslim Council. Those who attend the Sobieski Street mosque -- an average of 50 a day and at least 200 on Friday -- will attend other local mosques for the time being.

"We're not going anywhere," Qazi said. "We will be here. There will be a mosque at this site, it's just whether or not it will be a new structure."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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