September 13th, 2010
12:32 PM ET
Editor's note: CNN's Tricia Escobedo spoke to the leaders of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Atlanta, Georgia, at their Friday prayer service and celebration marking the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
Ahmadi Muslims across the United States began taking to the streets earlier this year to spread their message that Islam is a religion of peace.
They've been showcasing their message in pamphlets, advertisements on city buses, and in face-to-face conversations with fellow Americans.
Hazeem Pudhiapura is asking his Atlanta, Georgia, congregation to personally hand out pamphlets with that message in a nationwide effort to reach two percent of all Americans this year.
He admits that the campaign probably won't receive as much attention as, say, the planned Quran burning on 9/11. But he said that anti-Islam sentiment is why their message needs to be heard now, more than ever.
"The main goal is to remove the stereotypes," said Pudhiapura, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Atlanta. "Islam got introduced to this country in a very bad way on 9/11. And it's unfortunate.
"[But] we cannot be a closet Muslim. We cannot afford to do that. If we don't do it today, my kids ... their identity will be lost.
"It may take a long time, but it will be the right way to do it."
Ahmadi Muslims are in a unique position to speak against Islamist extremism. Their sect has been persecuted for years, particularly in Pakistan, where the movement was founded in the late 19th century. In May, militants with ties to the Taliban targeted their mosques in Lahore, Pakistan, killing more than 80 Ahmadi Muslims.
In addition, Pakistan's government does not recognize the sect as legitimate. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has cited Pakistan as imposing "the most severe legal restrictions and officially sanctioned discrimination" on the Ahmadi Muslims.
Pudhiapura said those restrictions include forcing Ahmadis to either lie about their religion or declare that they worship a "false prophet" when applying for a Pakistani passport.
The sect also faces persecution in Indonesia, where they can be criminally charged for their religious beliefs.
Ahmadi Muslims believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who lived between 1835 and 1908, was sent by God as the Messiah that other Muslims are still waiting for. Most mainstream Muslims - Sunni and Shia - say Ahmadis are not Muslim because they do not regard the Prophet Mohammed as the last prophet sent by God.
“Pudhiapura praised freedom of religion in the United States during his sermon marking Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
"This is an awesome country," Pudhiapura said, noting that a large part of the Ahmadi faith is the belief in the separation of church and state.
However, Ahmadis are often not welcomed by fellow Muslims.
"It's not as bad as in other countries, but it's not very good," Pudhiapura said. "We have a couple of plans to have interfaith forums with other Muslim imams, but normally we get left out."
The Ahmadis' worship center outside Atlanta has also received threats, he said.
Nevertheless, the group is still pushing forward with taking its message of peace to the farthest reaches of rural Georgia.
"We are the foremost community who is championing the cause of Muslims for peace," Pudhiapura said. "And that is to make the American citizens understand the true message of Islam is peace. To put a face on the people who are loyal citizens who are true American Muslims."
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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.