A voluntary disclosure from a respected Muslim religious leader is being used by immigration authorities seeking to deport him, according to testimony at his deportation trial Friday from a federal agent.
Mohammad Qatanani is the imam of a Paterson mosque, the Islamic Center of Passaic County. Immigration officials assert he should be deported, claiming he did not disclose a 1993 conviction in Israel on his application for permanent U.S. residency.
The imam's lawyers dispute the authenticity and contents of Israeli documents that U.S. officials obtained.
The Israeli military said it charged and convicted Qatanani with being a member of the militant Hamas organization.
Qatanani, 44, also contends that he was detained, not arrested, by Israeli authorities, and wasn't aware of any conviction. He says he was subjected to physical and mental abuse while in detention.
An agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement testified Friday that she started deportation proceedings based on information voluntarily provided by Qatanani during a meeting that he had initiated in 2005.
Qatanani's supporters said the imam had reached out to federal officials that year to determine why his 1999 application for permanent U.S. residency had been delayed. . .
Immigration Judge Alberto J. Riefkohl also heard testimony from several Qatanani supporters in law enforcement, mosque members and other Muslims, and religious leaders of various faiths. All testified to Qatanani's message of peace, reconciliation and interfaith outreach.
Sheriffs from two New Jersey counties as well as Charles McKenna, a senior federal prosecutor in New Jersey, testified that Qatanani played a vital role in "building bridges" between law enforcement and Muslim-Americans following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Several Catholic priests and a Jewish rabbi became emotional on the stand when describing how much Qatanani had done for interfaith understanding.
Members of the Paterson mosque spoke of how Qatanani had taken a small, insular congregation and transformed it into a vital community center open to Muslims of all backgrounds as well as others in the community.
Outside the federal building, hundreds of supporters chanted and prayed. Supporters honked horns as they traveled down Broad Street.
During a break, Qatanani said he was deeply grateful for those who testified for him.
"I would like to say thank you to them," he said. "It is a very beautiful message of brotherhood and sisterhood - thank you very much."