April 20th, 2013
07:39 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Editor
Washington (CNN) - Muslim leaders in Boston and elsewhere have distanced themselves from the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, condemning the deadly terror attack and saying they feared reprisals against their communities.
"I don't care who or what these criminals claim to be, but I can never recognize these criminals as part of my city or my faith community," said Yusufi Vali, executive director for the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in the Boston area.
"All of us Bostonians want these criminals to be brought to justice immediately. I am infuriated at the criminals of these bombings for trying to rip our city apart. We will remain united and not let them change who we are as Bostonians."
Vali said Friday that none of his staff were familiar with the suspects, identified by the FBI as brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, 19. The elder brother died at a Boston hospital early Friday after a gunbattle with police. Authorities captured the younger man Friday night.
On Saturday the Islamic Society of Boston Cambridge Masjid, a small mosque in Cambridge, Massachusetts, issued a statement saying both men occasionally attended prayer services there.
"In their visits, they never exhibited any violent sentiments or behavior. Otherwise they would have been immediately reported to the FBI," according to the statement, which was read aloud by a congregant outside the mosque.
"After we learned of their identities, we encouraged anyone who knew them in our congregation to immediate report to law enforcement, which has taken place."
The congregant didn't take questions from reporters. The mosque is not related to the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
Beyond their occasional attendance at services, few other details are known about the brothers' religious practices, apart from remarks by relatives and comments attributed to the elder brother by a photographer, none of which portrayed the brothers as particularly devout.
Messages on a Twitter account attributed to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and posted in the days after the bombings, were broadly secular. Various interviews with high school and college classmates of Dzhokar Tsarnaev offered no hints of a particular interest in religion. Leaders of Boston's Muslim community contacted on Friday said they didn't know the brothers.
However, other parts of the older brother's online and social media presence indicate that he was deeply religious, especially in recent years. His aunt said within the past two years he had begun to pray five times a day. Some of the links on his YouTube channels are to lectures by radical preachers, but the content of those lectures is more to do with religious practice than jihad or Islamist militancy.
Muslim leaders are worried because of past reprisals against their community after terror attacks attributed to members of their faith.
On Friday, the suspects' mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, told Russian Television that her oldest son "got involved in religion five years ago."
"My youngest was raised from 8 years in America, my oldest he was really properly raised in our house," Tsarnaeva said.
"Nobody talked about terrorism. Tamerlan got involved in religion five years ago. Started following his own religion, never told me he could be on side of jihad. He was followed by FBI for three years, knew what he was doing, where on Internet he was going. How could this happen, they were controlling every step of him, now they are saying this is a terrorist act.
"It's impossible for them to do such things. I am really telling you that this is a setup. My son would never keep it in secret. My son, you tell me, my son wouldn't keep it secret. Who would be knowing? If there is anyone who would know it would be me. He wouldn't hide it. But there was never a word."
The suspects' uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, described his nephews as "losers" who happened to be Muslims.
Tsarni told reporters outside his home in Montgomery Village, Maryland, that his nephews' religion played no role in the attacks.
"Anything else to do with religion, with Islam, it's a fraud, it's a fake," said Tsarni, who described the family as peace-loving, ethnic Chechens.
"Somebody radicalized them, but it's not my brother, who just moved back to Russia, who spent his life bringing bread to their table, fixing cars," he said. "My family had nothing to do with that family. Of course, we're ashamed, yes, we're ashamed they're children of my brother."
Asked what might have motivated his nephews to carry out such an attack, he said: "Being losers; hatred to those who were able to settle themselves. These are the only reasons I can imagine."
Tsarni said his brother's family arrived in the United States in 2003 and was granted asylum. He said he had not seen them since December 2005 and last spoke with them in 2009.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev talked briefly about his faith - and his aspiration to become a U.S. citizen and box for the U.S. Olympic team - with a photographer while training at a Boston gym to compete in a Golden Gloves competition.
Photographer Johannes Hirn posted an online photo essay of Tamerlan Tsarnaev titled "Will Box for Passport."
One of the captions for the photos reads "Tsarnaev, a Muslim, doesn't drink or smoke. 'God said no alcohol,' he says."
By Friday afternoon, a a link to the photos said the gallery was "private and cannot be viewed."
In Washington, Muslim leaders again condemned the attacks, sent condolences to the victims and said they were concerned with reprisal attacks against Muslims in the United States.
"Those responsible for the terrorist attacks in Boston must face justice," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, referred to as CAIR, told reporters at a hastily called news conference.
"The question will always come up if they are associated with our community," Awad said.
"Our community and our faith detest and deplore these actions and these individuals. We do not know the motives of these individuals but our position has been consistent. Any act of violence against innocent people is deplorable and is condemned in our faith.
"As God tells us in the Quran, if you murder one person it is as if you murdered all humanity. And if you saved one person, one innocent life, it is like you saved all of humanity," Awad said.
Imam Magid of the Islamic Society of North America said his group has set up a fund to help the bombing victims.
"These are acts of crime, not acts of religion," Benjamin Abdul-Haqq, an imam at Masjid Muhammad mosque in Washington, told the news conference.
Corey Saylor, legislative director for CAIR, said the group feared reprisals.
"We're very concerned, because in past instances some individuals have decided to go out and target further innocent people because they look different or belong to a faith that is a minority," Saylor said.
One reporter asked the leaders gathered at the news conference how they could combat radical videos that pop up on social media.
Saylor said community leaders have forcefully pushed back against what they consider radical elements of the faith.
"Unfortunately every faith has within in it heretical elements, and unfortunately young people in general will listen to those elements."
Saylor said he and other leaders would continue to push back against the heretical element "loudly and clearly."
"We will stand up, we will push back against extremists, and I'm very comfortable we'll win against them eventually."
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.