MANASSAS, Virginia (Dispatches) — A U.S. mosque in northern Virginia is asking the Biden administration to release a set of religious tiles that were confiscated at Dulles International Airport after they were deemed to violate sanctions on Iran.
At a news conference Tuesday at the Manassas Mosque, Imam Abolfazl Nahidian said the custom-made tiles were shipped in June from the Iranian city of Qom, to be used in the construction of a new mosque a few miles away.
He said the tiles were a gift and he paid no money for them, but a Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport blocked the mosque from claiming the tiles, citing the sanctions.
Nahidian said he has received other tile shipments throughout the years without incident, including one shipment that arrived eight months ago.
A letter from Customs and Border Protection informed the mosque that the tile must be shipped back to Iran or destroyed.
Destroying the tiles, which are adorned with Qur’anic verses, would be especially disturbing, Nahidian said.
“Destroying the tiles is the same as destroying verses of the Qur’an, or the whole Qur’an itself,” he said.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that whatever one’s views are of the Iranian sanctions, it makes no sense to enforce the rules on a benign piece of religious art.
“We believe the government should have common sense,” he said.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection confirmed that the tiles were placed on hold on June 21 and that on June 30, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control determined that, under the sanctions imposed on Iran, the tiles could not be imported. The spokesperson said no final determination has been made on the tiles’ disposition.
The Biden administration is locked in a standoff over the U.S. return to a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, showing an aversion to remove the most draconian sanctions which its predecessor imposed on the Islamic Republic.
President Joe Biden has admitted that Washington was wrong to
abandon the nuclear agreement, but he is showing an urge to retain some aspects of the sanctions as leverage to pressure Iran.
Food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are purportedly exempt from the sanctions that Washington imposed on Tehran after former president Donald Trump walked away from the international deal over Iran’s nuclear program.
But the U.S. measures targeting everything from oil sales to shipping and financial activities have deterred any dealing with Iranians - including humanitarian activities.
Speakers at Tuesday’s news conference suggested that anti-Islam sentiment may be responsible for the confiscation.
“If this were a statue of the Virgin Mary, would we be here discussing this?” asked Rafi Uddin Ahmed, president of the Muslim Association of Virginia.
The tiles, weighing about 340 kg, are to be used to decorate the “mihrab,” a niche indicating the direction of prayers.
They include verses from the Qur’an, Islam’s revealed text, including verse 144 of the second chapter Al-Baqara (The Cow):
“Indeed, We see you [O Prophet Muhammad] turning your face toward heaven. Now We will make you turn toward a direction of prayer that will please you. So turn your face towards the Sacred Mosque in Mecca — wherever you are, turn your faces towards it.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the US, has called on the Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury Department to release the tiles.
“Confiscating these Qur’anic tiles simply because they came from Iran was unwarranted and destroying them would be absolutely unacceptable. Forcing this Virginia mosque to send the tiles out of the country would be just as unacceptable; it would also send a negative message to the American Muslim community and Muslims worldwide,” CAIR National Deputy Director Edward Ahmed Mitchell said.